Sunday, April 17, 2011

Genetic Testing on Unborn Fetuses

I've talked about the ethics of genetic testing on humans, as well as the ethics of GM crops and livestock.  Now I'd like to have some discussion on the unborn.  Genetic testing on fetuses is routinely offered by doctors and is legal at this point in time.  We have discussed the ability of a genetic test to show susceptibility to diseases, and it can also show potential birth defects.  Genetic testing on a fetus requires an invasive test, which means a sample of the placenta or amniotic fluid is needed.  Invasive tests themselves carry some  risk as there is a small chance that they could induce a miscarriage.  There are other "prenatal" tests that measure protein levels in the mother's blood to determine risk for Down Syndrome, among other defects, but these screenings are not as accurate as a genetics test.  

Genetic testing on the fetuses may help a doctor in providing the best care and management of the patients pregnancy, and help a couple to prepare for a baby with birth defects.  Though, it is important for doctors to explain that some of these tests only show a higher risk for a disease/defect, and do no necessarily mean that the baby will be affected.  The testing also raises ethical questions, because certain parents may opt for abortion if they find their baby will have birth defects or down syndrome.  For this reason, some believe genetic testing on fetuses should not be allowed. 

Unfortunately, this issue really is a larger one in disguise (the legality of abortion), so it is difficult to pin down.  In my opinion, there is nothing ethically wrong with genetically testing a fetus.  If the parents wish to know if their baby is healthy, then they should know.  What the parents do with the information is also their business.  It is critical to be able to distinguish between the two separate issues.  Let those who are against abortion not use genetic testing as the scapegoat.  I say this, because I would speculate that those against genetic testing of fetuses are also against the legality of abortion.  Genetic testing on fetuses should continue to be offered to parents who desire information about the health of their baby.


  1. I've heard that these tests are pretty inaccurate. If this was true, I guess the problem for me is how many babies we are killing because of a false positive. I thought I read that you can go in for a more accurate test if the first one says you are "high risk" which is more invasive and can cause you to lose the baby. Do you know any numbers about overall accuracy?

  2. I think you are right Michelle. There are screenings for certain disorders that may have low accuracy. I think these screenings though deal mostly with testing for proteins in the mother's blood. I don't know how common it is for an actual genetic test to be performed on a fetus, but it involves taking the fetus's DNA and testing it for certain abnormalities. This DNA testing is likely much more accurate than the blood screenings.