NIPT could lead to abortion of "undesirable" babies, say bioethics experts
23 May 2017
Bioethics experts warn that NIPT could be used to target baby girls, as well as babies with Down's syndrome. Image: Don't Screen Us Out
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has warned that Non-Invasive Prenatal Screening (NIPT) could lead to babies being aborted because they are the wrong gender or have other "undesirable" characteristics.
NIPT, a blood test which can detect genetic conditions as well as sex and other traits, will be offered to expectant mothers to screen for Down's, Patau's and Edwards' syndromes if doctors already fear their baby has a higher than average risk from this year. It was approved for use on the NHS in October 2016 despite the concerns of medics and campaigners that it would lead to an even higher percentage of babies with Down's syndrome and other genetic conditions being aborted.
Now, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a Government backed think tank, has said that the technique should be restricted, to prevent it being used for spurious reasons. They say that private clinics are selling it to couples to discover the baby's sex, without being asked to prove that there is a high possibility of a genetic condition.
Sex selection tourism
Professor Tom Shakespeare, chair of the body’s working group on NIPT, warned that the test could allow encourage "sex-selection tourists," from other countries who want to be sure they are having a boy.
"Abortions on the basis of sex appear to be rare in Britain. However, this could change with a new DNA testing method that allows the baby's sex to be revealed to prospective parents much earlier that the standard 18-20 week scan," he said.
"We know that some women are under strong pressure to give birth to boys, and may be subject to abuse if they give birth to a girl. If left unchecked, use of this technique to determine sex could lead to an increase in sex-selective abortions here, and to Britain becoming a destination for them."
That abortion on the basis of sex is happening in the UK was uncovered by a Telegraph investigation in 2012. However, the Crown Prosecution Service used its powers to squash a case brought against the two doctors exposed by pro-life campaigner Aisling Hubert.
However, Voice for Choice, a coalition of UK abortion campaigners, denied that abortion on the basis of sex was an issue. "This gives credence to the idea that sex selective abortions take place in the UK, when there is no evidence for this,” said a spokeswoman. "Restricting access to information in pregnancy does nothing to redress gender inequality, but promotes the idea that women are not to be trusted to make decisions about their reproductive futures."
Prof Shakespeare also warned that the test could lead to abortions for other genetic traits, such as intelligence. "The test also allows whole genome sequencing which is a serious thing. People are already paying thousands for school fees so it is not unreasonable they would pay to find out if their child will have genetic traits that would allow them to perform well. We're not there quite yet, but we're not far off, and we are calling for a moratorium to be put in place now before we get there to stop this sort of thing happening."
What about the disabled?
However, the Council seemed quite comfortable with the text being used to screen out babies with Down's syndrome and other genetic conditions. In March, a report recommended "that NIPT should only be used for significant medical conditions and impairments that affect the child at birth or in early life as this information can allow women and couples to make meaningful reproductive choices." Prof Shakespeare explicitly said "We support the introduction of this test for Down’s syndrome on the NHS next year", although he mentioned the need for balanced information and support.
All abortion is lethal discrimination
Dr Anthony McCarthy of SPUC commented, "The earlier Council report on this matter referred to 'meaningful reproductive choices' being made in the context of destroying unborn babies with Down's syndrome. Such choices are indeed meaningful but only insofar as they entrench lethal discrimination against those with certain conditions. That some promoting NIPT can on the one hand note this and on the other express concerns about the dangers of sex-selective abortions suggests that they are unaware of the strong social pressures brought to bear on parents in a society which has stood by and allowed for the deaths of over 8 million unborn children. All abortion is lethal discrimination, whether on the basis of disability or sex or age or location in the womb. Abortion choices are conditioned by a presumption that certain classes of human beings can be deliberately attacked by others. This is not about medicine but its corruption. And how sad that the abortion industry means that it is not safe to practice NIPT."
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