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More abortions for Down syndrome may result from new tests

WASHINGTON (BP)–A new combination of tests on pregnant women has increased the likelihood more Down syndrome children will be aborted.

A recent study of more than 8,200 women at a dozen medical centers in the United States showed two blood screenings and an ultrasound test can work together to identify most Down syndrome babies near the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, according to an Associated Press report. Blood screenings normally used in this country identify a smaller percentage of babies with Down syndrome about eight weeks later than the new combination of tests, the AP reported.

The new tests will enable pregnant women to choose abortion earlier, the study’s leader said. Ronald Wapner, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, told the AP, “The absolute biggest advantage is this allows women to make private decisions” before others can tell they are pregnant.

That is not an advantage, pro-life bioethics specialist Ben Mitchell told Baptist Press.

“A couple of problems plague the new tests,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “First, it moves us farther down the road to seeing children as chosen for their genetic condition rather than given to us for their nurture and care. Second, the tests target embryos — the most helpless of our children — for destruction.

“Unborn children are not ours to chose but ours to receive,” said Mitchell, also a consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “They are not ours to select but ours to nurture.”

With current tests, unborn babies identified with Down syndrome already are likely candidates for abortion. A study done from 1972 to 1994 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found 86 percent of couples chose abortion when their unborn children were detected with Down syndrome, according to a 1998 report.

Blood tests normally performed in the United States are unable to detect Down syndrome before about 20 weeks into a pregnancy and then identify as much as 75 percent of babies with the condition, according to AP.

The new combination — which includes two blood screenings, an ultrasound and the mother’s age — identified the condition 85 percent of the time at about 12 weeks in the study, the AP reported. Nine percent of the time, the combination erroneously diagnosed an unborn baby with Down syndrome, according to the report. The New England Journal of Medicine published an article on the study in its Oct. 9 issue.

Women have the option of undergoing one of two more definitive, though invasive, procedures if these tests show a high probability of Down syndrome, according to the AP: 1) Chorionic villus sampling, in which a needle is used to withdraw cells from the placenta or 2) amniocentesis, in which a needle draws fluid from the amniotic sac.

The combination of tests recently studied in the United States already is used in England, Israel and several other countries, the AP reported.

About one in 800 births globally results in a Down syndrome child. About 1,600 Down syndrome babies are born each year in the United States. The condition, which results from an extra 21st chromosome or additional portion of that chromosome, produces mild to severe mental impairment and physical features such as a flattened nose and small skull.

The life expectancy of those with Down syndrome has increased markedly in recent decades. Some children with the condition attend mainstream school classes, and some adults with Down syndrome work at a variety of jobs.

Students at a Tempe, Ariz., high school selected a student with Down syndrome as homecoming king this fall. Poco Carton, 21, easily won the election for king at Marcos de Niza High School. He is known on campus for his dance moves at lunch and his habit of saying hello to nearly everyone, according to the AP.