Foetal screenings have resulted in fewer babies born with the birth defect, but trend raises ethical questionsIf current health policies and trends continue, Denmark could be a country without a single citizen with Down’s syndrome in the not too distant future.
Since 2004, the government has offered all pregnant women free prenatal screenings to determine if the foetus is afflicted with Down’s syndrome – a birth defect caused by an extra 21st chromosome which results in mild-to-moderate learning disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, and particular facial characteristics.
In 2004, when the free and widespread screenings were introduced, 61 babies with Down’s syndrome were born in Denmark. The following year, the number was reduced by more than half. In each successive year, the number continued to drop by an average annual rate of around 13 percent. The reason for the steady decline is that most of the foetuses that test positive for the defect are aborted.
A medical review from 2002 of elective abortions in the UK and the US found that around 92 percent of all foetuses diagnosed with Down’s syndrome were aborted. In Denmark, medical experts estimate the rate of abortions to be even higher. If the current trend continues, it is predicted that the last Down’s syndrome baby in Denmark could be born in 2030.
But not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
“We should not have an ethnic cleansing type of situation, which this resembles,” Ulla Brendstrup, whose child has Down’s syndrome, told Berlingske newspaper. “They are going after one specific handicap. What’s next? Will it be children with diabetes who will be rejected?”
Niels Uldbjerg, professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at the University of Aarhus, agrees that an ethical problem exists.
From the medical perspective, he sees successful screenings and the reduction of babies born with birth defects as a “tremendously great accomplishment”.
“But if you ask me as a person, then I would say that I like that there are people among us who are different,” Uldbjerg added.
Grete Fält-Hansen, who is co-chairman for the National Association for Down Syndrome in Denmark (ADS), sympathises with families who decide to abort when they learn that the foetus has the birth defect, but wonders where our increasing ability to choose our children is taking us.
“There are many other things that produce handicaps, and if you need to pass a cost-benefit analysis in order to be born, then we have created a border control at the cervix,” Fält-Hansen said.
Lillian Bondo, who is chairman for the Danish Association of Midwives, thinks we, as a culture, have already approached the slippery slope.
“We know that within just a few years, presumably through a blood test from the pregnant woman, will be able to get a very detailed account of everything the parents might want to know about the child – and also about certain possible diseases,” Bondo told Berlingske. “If the couple learns in this way that there is a good chance that the child will develop a chronic disease, is that then a good reason to abort?”
“I don’t have the definitive answer,” Bondo continued. “But I would like to get as many people as possible talking about where society should draw the line. I don’t want a society where we reject people over trivialities.”