Abortion and Down Syndrome

It’s no secret that in utero screenings for genetic diseases have led to the abortion of many children with Down Syndrome. What surprised me in a recent New York Times article was the (apparent) tension in the medical community between advocates of better testing and researchers of drug treatments for Down Syndrome.

Here’s a link to the article in question. A doctor is compelled to begin Down Syndrome research when his daughter is born with the condition. And yet, because of advanced, less invasive testing that is on the horizon, he is having trouble getting funding for his research. The thinking goes like this: Why should money be devoted to “curing” Down Syndrome if we can effectively test for it? The role that abortion plays is clear. Here is an excerpt:

In January, and again in March, a spate of news reports described new studies of the noninvasive blood tests that would allow pregnant women to check for Down syndrome without the risks and discomfort associated with chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis. Few of the articles, however, took note of the profound unease many medical ethicists, including some who are ardently pro-choice, feel about the tests and how they might lead to a dramatic reduction in the Down syndrome population.

“Even people who are traditionally against abortion are sometimes willing to condone it when the abortion is of a fetus with a disabling trait,” says Erik Parens, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y. “But it’s important to recognize that there is a huge range of genetic disorders. In their own way, a lot of kids with Down syndrome flourish, and so do their families.”

Advocates of the new tests insist that parents will be given news of an affected pregnancy by a trained geneticist who will present the information fairly and fully. Critics, including Costa and many other parents of children with Down syndrome, say that such dispassionate approaches rarely happen in practice, with many obstetricians and genetic counselors providing unduly negative or misleading information.

But Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Stanford and a developer of one of the new tests, says: “It’s a gross oversimplification to assume that these tests are going to lead to the wholesale elimination of Down-syndrome births. My wife’s cousin has Down syndrome. We just celebrated his 21st birthday. He’s a wonderful person. It’s not an obvious step that you would terminate an affected pregnancy.”

But Costa points to a falloff in the financing of Down-syndrome research since the prenatal tests have been in development. Although it’s difficult to compare the numbers, money from the National Institutes of Health dropped to $16 million in 2007 from $23 million in 2003, before creeping back up to $22 million in 2011. That’s far less than the $68 million slated for cystic fibrosis, which affects an estimated 30,000 people in the United States, at most one-tenth of the 300,000 to 400,000 people who have Down.

“The geneticists expect Down syndrome to disappear,” Costa says, “so why fund treatments?”

Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, denies that this is the calculus used by his organization. Yet he offered no clear answer when I asked him why about $3,000 in research dollars is spent by N.I.H. for every person with cystic fibrosis, compared with less than $100 for every person with Down.

“The number affected is a fair metric to use,” Guttmacher said. But, he pointed out, most of N.I.H.’s funding decisions are based on the strength of proposals coming from researchers. Advocacy groups for disorders like AIDS, autism and breast cancer have certainly played a role in their gaining increased funding, he said. And perhaps, he speculated, Down suffers from an image problem. “Part of it is that Down syndrome has been around for so long,” he said.

Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, Republican of Washington, who co-founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus soon after her 4-year-old son, Cole, was born with the disorder, has had little success in having money appropriated for Down research.

“I find myself wondering how N.I.H. really sets their priorities,” she told me. “I’m quite concerned that so many of the researchers in the Down-syndrome field have difficulty getting funded.” She continued, “My fear is that for some, they believe that it’s been taken care of through prenatal diagnosis.”

It’s painful to read how “genetic counselors provid[e] unduly negative or misleading information” in the hopes that the mother of a Down Syndrome child will choose to abort. Rather than see their child as a gift, one made in God’s image, they see defective tissue that can be disposed of to make life easier. I shudder to think how many women have been persuaded by these counselors.

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