Down Syndrome Now Detectable In 1st Trimester

A new test that allows the early detection of Down Syndrome is sparking new controversy in the abortion battle.

Down Syndrome Now Detectable In 1st Trimester (WaPo, A1)

A first-trimester screening test can reliably identify fetuses likely to be born with Down syndrome, providing expectant women with that information much earlier in a pregnancy than current testing allows, according to a major study being released today. The eagerly awaited study of more than 38,000 U.S. women — the largest ever conducted — found that the screening method, which combines a blood test with an ultrasound exam, can pinpoint many fetuses with the common genetic disorder 11 weeks after conception. That allows women to decide sooner whether to undergo the riskier follow-up testing needed to confirm the diagnosis.

“This is a big deal for women. It’s going to have a big impact on care for women, not just in the United States but throughout the world,” said Fergal D. Malone of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, who led the study published in today’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Screening women before the second trimester allows those who might opt to terminate a pregnancy to make that decision when doctors say an abortion is safer and less traumatic. It also gives those who want to continue the pregnancy more time to prepare emotionally for their child’s condition, and provides earlier reassurance to those whose babies are healthy, avoiding weeks of anxiety, Malone and others said.

“This is huge,” said Catherine Y. Spong of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded the $15 million eight-year study.

John Cole thinks this will accelerate an existing trend:

I remember hearing a physician (a pediatrician from California, if I remember correctly) discussing how few Down Syndrome patients he sees compared to 20-30 years ago, and explained that this, in large part could be explained by couples electively choosing to abort babies who had signs of severe disability. I have, of course, no way to verify the anecdotal evidence offered by the good doctor, but it is something to think about.

Hugh Hewitt is very, very concerned:

Given that this research will spark little in the way of controversy, there will be no rational basis for distinguishing the search for tests to aid sex-selection driven abortion or even abortion driven by factors relating to future performance of the child as an athlete or scholar.

Nick Gillespie, coming from a much more libertarian position, concurs:

I take it as an axiom that more choice and more knowledge is a good thing. But this sort of screening should (rightly) start a conversation about how increasingly better genetic and other tests will effect the sorts of children that are born: If you knew, for instance, that a fetus carries Down syndrome or some other condition that can’t be remedied in utero, would you abort? What about syndromes, ailments, etc., that are not as severe–what is the threshold individuals are willing to cross in pursuit of “normal” or better than normal offspring? What happens as these detection technologies become better and better, allowing women (and their partners) to know eye color, hair color, likely height, etc? Will/should those be factors that go into a decision to terminate a pregnancy? Something similar is already happening with pre-implantation screening of embryos created for IVF procedures. These are incredibly personal decisions–and they should remain with the individual, I think–but there are also profoundly social and deserve a wide and rich discussion.

I’ve never understood why this aspect of the abortion debate is so controversial. Leaving aside the religious-metaphysical position that life begins at conception and is inherently sacred, most people agree that aborting healthy fetuses is a bad thing even if they think it should nonetheless be a woman’s legal right to choose.

I understand why people who otherwise oppose abortion nonetheless would support it in the case of severe fetal health issues and that finding a bright line is then difficult. But if one believes that a woman should be allowed to abort a healthy fetus because the timing would interfere with their careers or otherwise be inconvenient, I see no moral reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to abort a fetus for reasons of gender, IQ, or any other attribute. Either killing a healthy fetus is immoral or it isn’t.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. caltechgirl says:

    as far as I’m concerned, as long as abortion is legal in this country, it’s the parents’ choice, for whatever reason, to abort or carry the baby to term.

    But that is an interesting intellectual disconnect, thinking that it’s ok to abort a healthy fetus for whatever reason, but not ok to abort a severely compromised one. Does the compromised fetus have a greater inherent right to be born simply because it started out “behind”? Is this affirmative action for fetuses?

  2. Mark says:

    Eventually, will we see insurance companies refusing to pay for treatment for some pre-existing conditions because the parents learned about it before birth and had a chance to, um, correct the error?

  3. A wonderful little kid is in my daughter’s first-grade class — let’s call him Mike. Loving, fun, perhaps a little overly friendly is he. Brings a great big smile to everyone’s face in the class, and his parents and siblings love him like crazy.

    Forgot to mention: Mike has Down Syndrome. He’s in a special immersion program they have at our public school.

    I wonder just how many Mikes there will be in the world now. For some parents, for which the concept of “choice” doesn’t include murder as an option, there will still be, I guess.

  4. RA says:

    I’m disgusted by most of you. Human life starts at conception. That is not religion, that is biology. Americans are acting more and more like Nazis. Murdering innocent human life is a barbarous, humanist evil.

    The bottom line is you will reap what you sow and you will deserve it.

  5. DL says:

    As a sceptical conservative teacher I cannot tell you enough of the great joy I have had working with these beautiful people over the years. They are surprising at times in their ability and nmake great role models for most of us in their love and kindness for others. I feel no need to apoligize for God about his choices to bring forth such beautiful life in his image. They do not become other than humans because of their differences.

    People who think about themselves and their own needs first and foremost are just incapable of understanding.

  6. Unfortunately we’re seeing human beings viewed more as objects. Like taking back (rejecting) a defective television we ignore the individual uniqueness and dignity of individuals because they aren’t “perfect.”

  7. Carl Everett says:

    I’m disgusted by most of you. Human life starts at conception. That is not religion, that is biology.

    Hey, what are you some kinda liberal?? Life begins BEFORE conception–the exact point is when you’ve had about five cocktails and you start flirting with the hot waitress!

  8. Stormy70 says:

    Will people start aborting “gay” gened babies in the future? I don’t think abortion should be such an arbitrary option for new parents. It is tricksy ground.

  9. dutchmarbel says:

    In the Netherlands you can get tests to determine wether your baby has a genetic disorder for free after you’re 36 (Dutch mothers are on average 29.2). The number of women that actually take them is less than 50%.

    I had ultrasound screening (nuchal translucency) and a triple test for all three kids, not because I would have aborted them if they had Downs, but because I wanted to be prepared, make sure the kid would have all the care necessary.

    So availability of tests do not mean that all babies will be aborted. Some will be, others will not be. Of course, IF you have Downs kid, you will have bigger bills, medical (heartproblems, speechproblems, respiratory problems, thyroid hormones as a therapy) as well as for education and fysical therapy and such. In a society were the parents have to pay for all of those that might play a part of the decision.

  10. Sabrina says:

    This new method is a good thing if it really works.

    Because the only exam who can determine if the baby have the down syndrome (amniocentesis) is very risked. 1% of the mother who have this exam have a miscarriege. There is more miscarriege beacause of amniocentesis than newborns with the down syndrome each year.

    It’s important to let the parent know about that and to let them the choice to keep the baby or not. Because it’s an important decision.

    You must wonder if you will be able to take care of him (it’s not easy at all), if you have the means to do it (at least 1 of the parents will have to stop working to look after him), what he will become when you will die (because even when he will be adult he will need help), …