August 2006. Each year, more and more prenatal technologies become available to pregnant women that allow them to test whether their children will be affected by certain diseases. Approximately 450 conditions can currently be diagnosed in utero by testing fetal cells, often through chorionic villus sampling (early in the pregnancy) or through amniocentesis (later in the pregnancy). Based on some pending technologies, this number may soon skyrocket to nearly 6000 diseases. Such powerful medical tools raise some serious concerns: are prenatal testing results rapidly becoming the equivalent of death sentences for children in the womb? Prenatal testing does have its valid uses and applications, but the temptation to misuse it is a serious one, so the decision to carry out such testing must be made very carefully, and within in a limited set of circumstances.
Kaiser Permanente, a large managed health care organization, offered a disturbing statistic regarding prenatal testing in a 2004 New York Times article. When their members in northern California tested their unborn children for cystic fibrosis, some of them tested positive. Of those parents who received a positive test result, a full 95 percent terminated their pregnancies. When couples learn they have a child affected by Down's Syndrome, the figure is comparable. One argument made in favor of testing for various genetic defects is that the couple can then mentally prepare themselves better for what lies ahead once their child is born. But these sobering statistics indicate that, at least for some diseases, few children can run the gauntlet successfully.
Thus, while prenatal screening may seem to give couples more power, it often actually takes choices away. Society's demand for physical perfection places enormous pressure on couples to "conform to the norm" by aborting less-than-perfect children. When medical professionals advocate prenatal testing, the profession subtly communicates a message that there may be certain lives that are not worth living. This quiet "conspiracy of eugenics" is beginning to reach to all levels of society, affecting even Catholics and others of a strongly pro-life persuasion. As Dr. John Larsen of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at George Washington University Medical Center put it in the same Times article: "People will come into my office in tears and say they've been against abortion their whole lives, but they'll make an exception for themselves [when their baby is affected]."
Against the backdrop of this widespread and growing societal pressure, how can we decide whether we should have prenatal testing done or not? Some basic moral guidelines can be of assistance: