Abortion and the Failure of Prenatal Testing

(KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images)

As Wesley Smith noted on the Corner yesterday, the New York Times has a grim report on prenatal testing, which found that tests for rare genetic disorders before birth apparently return false positives as much as 90 percent of the time. From the Times piece:

In just over a decade, [prenatal] tests have gone from laboratory experiments to an industry that serves more than a third of the pregnant women in America, luring major companies like Labcorp and Quest Diagnostics into the business, alongside many start-ups.

The tests initially looked for Down syndrome and worked very well. But as manufacturers tried to outsell each other, they began offering additional screenings for increasingly rare conditions.

The grave predictions made by those newer tests are usually wrong, an examination by The New York Times has found.

That includes the screening that came back positive for Ms. Geller, which looks for Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition that offers little chance of living independently as an adult. Studies have found its positive results are incorrect more than 90 percent of the time.

But the Times notes that, despite these enormous flaws, companies continue to peddle their tests to doctors and pregnant mothers as if the results are entirely reliable, describing them as “highly accurate” and offering “total confidence.” In his post, Smith points out that reliance on these tests appears to be profit-driven, as doctors don’t limit their use to cases where such a test is medically indicated. And this in turn contributes to a frightening mentality already present in our culture. As Smith puts it, “The modern drive to exert near absolute control — and to not only have a baby, but the baby we want — leads to deleterious consequences and tragic outcomes.”

I’d add one further point. We already know that, when prenatal testing appears to detect a fetal disorder or abnormality, abortion is fast becoming the norm. In England and Wales, for example, about 90 percent of women choose abortion after their unborn child receives a Down syndrome diagnosis. Iceland, meanwhile, has been hailed for virtually “eradicating Down syndrome births,” a formulation that makes it sound as if the country has found a cure for the disorder, when in fact its people have merely made a practice of aborting nearly 100 percent of unborn children diagnosed with it. Here in the U.S., while our abortion rates after prenatal diagnosis seem to be somewhat lower, cases of “fetal abnormality” are perhaps the most common reason given by abortion supporters who defend legal abortion after fetal viability — as if killing a sick child somehow ameliorates disease.

In a culture where abortion is the quick and easy “solution” for a baby who is deemed unfit or less than normal and therefore unwanted, how much more seriously should we take this report from the Times, which suggests that doctors are wrong far more often than not when diagnosing a serious fetal disorder?

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