Prenatal Diagnosis

Frank Pavone
January 25, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

The push for prenatal diagnostic tests for pregnant mothers just became stronger. Recently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists began recommending that every pregnant woman, regardless of age, be offered a choice of tests to determine whether her baby has Down Syndrome. The reason for this recommendation is, first of all, that although the common practice has been to recommend these tests for women over 35, doctors point out that there is no single event that happens at age 35 to make Down Syndrome more likely. The scale of risk is a continuum.

Secondly, ACOG points out that new methods of testing have been developed that are less invasive. Their top recommendation simply involves ultrasound and a blood test.

Aside from the medical questions, however, many moral questions arise. Are such tests morally permissible? What are they meant to accomplish? Is undue pressure being placed on pregnant mothers to have these tests? Is pressure being put on them to abort?

Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of prenatal diagnosis with these words in "The Gospel of Life" (Evangelium Vitae):

Special attention must be given to evaluating the morality of prenatal diagnostic techniques which enable the early detection of possible anomalies in the unborn child. In view of the complexity of these techniques, an accurate and systematic moral judgment is necessary. When they do not involve disproportionate risks for the child and the mother, and are meant to make possible early therapy or even to favor a serene and informed acceptance of the child not yet born, these techniques are morally licit. But since the possibilities of prenatal therapy are today still limited, it not infrequently happens that these techniques are used with a eugenic intention which accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of children affected by various types of anomalies. Such an attitude is shameful and utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value of a human life only within the parameters of "normality" and physical well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia as well.

The Church's approach is quite balanced. Diagnosis, not immoral in itself, must have a proper purpose and motive. In some ways, diagnosis advances a culture of life, because the unborn child is medical science’s newest patient. I have been privileged to participate in conferences of fetal surgeons, and this branch of medicine can serve life in increasingly effective ways.

Yet every tool can be used for good or for harm. Dr. Jerome Lejeune, a strongly pro-life geneticist who discovered the origins of Down Syndrome, lamented the fact that this knowledge was sometimes being used for a "search and destroy" mission. And it is no secret that there is a bias among medical professionals to recommend abortion when test results even a hint (often mistakenly) of Down Syndrome, as Brian Skotko of the National Down's Syndrome Congress found out when he surveyed 2,945 mothers of children with this condition.

Let's stand both for the advancement of the treatment of the unborn, and against the deadly mentality that pushes to kill the less than perfect.