Dangers to Life in Prenatal Testing
Modern forms of non-invasive prenatal tests (called NIPT, for short) are growing in popularity, being used by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women every year in the United States alone. These highly profitable tests, which promise parents a glimpse into the future of an unborn child by detecting some type of malformation or genetic abnormality, are aggressively marketed to pregnant women, and in many OB/GYN practices are now routine.
However, a devastating new investigation by The New York Times has found that many of those tests, which are completely unregulated by the FDA, are not remotely as accurate as the biomedical companies behind them would like parents to believe. Marketing materials put out by the testing companies suggest that the tests are “reliable” and “highly accurate.” In reality, however, some of the most common tests return false positives as much as 85-90% of the time, according to the Times’ analysis.
The tests that the Times looked at are blood tests, using blood drawn from the mother in the first trimester of pregnancy. Their allure is that they are significantly less invasive than other forms of testing, such as amniocentesis, which requires drawing a sample of amniotic fluid, and which carries a risk of miscarriage.
One marketing brochure from a testing company promises that the tests can provide “peace of mind” for the parents. However, as the Times notes, parents who receive a positive result often find anything but peace of mind:
In interviews, 14 patients who got false positives said the experience was agonizing. They recalled frantically researching conditions they’d never heard of, followed by sleepless nights and days hiding their bulging bellies from friends. Eight said they never received any information about the possibility of a false positive, and five recalled that their doctor treated the test results as definitive.
Unfortunately, much of this mental suffering is not precipitated simply by the knowledge that their child may be suffering from a serious malformation or genetic disorder. Much of it is due to the feeling of pressure that the parents must do something about it, i.e., they must quickly make a decision whether or not they will abort their child.
In theory, women whose unborn children return a positive result from one of the blood tests are supposed to go on to get more reliable – but still far from perfect – tests, such as those done through amniocentesis: i.e., the removal of a sample of the amniotic fluid. However, one 2014 study found that over 6% of women simply aborted their children without pursuing follow-up testing. No doubt, some of those children were healthy.
This, in turn, leads to a further trauma for the parents – that of discovering that they aborted a healthy child. One Irish couple was described, after aborting their child who was wrongly diagnosed with Trisomy 18, as “utterly, utterly mentally and physically devastated.”
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, reacted to the Times’ investigation, noting in remarks to the Catholic News Agency that children diagnosed with health problems are “disproportionately targeted for abortion.”
“Parents who receive such a prognosis while their baby is in utero should be given the medical and other supports necessary to allow them to cherish the gift of life, but most often they are not supported in this way,” Mancini lamented. “That prenatal tests are consistently erroneous adds an even deeper level of tragedy to the wrongful pressure on parents to abort. In the end, every life is a gift and deserves protection — regardless of disability.”
Catholic Teaching on Prenatal Testing
Catholic teaching does not necessarily oppose the practice of prenatal testing, acknowledging that it does have its valid uses and applications. However, the temptation to misuse prenatal testing is a serious one, which requires that the decision to carry out such testing be made very carefully and within a limited set of circumstances.
This concern about the potential misuse and abuse of prenatal testing was raised by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), in its 1987 document Donum vitae, which urged significant caution. The document noted that prenatal diagnosis can make it possible “to anticipate earlier and more effectively, certain therapeutic, medical or surgical procedures.” In such a case prenatal diagnosis “is permissible,” albeit only “if the methods employed safeguard the life and integrity of the embryo and the mother, without subjecting them to disproportionate risks.” (DV, I, 2)
Donum vitae adds that such testing “is gravely opposed to the moral law when it is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion depending upon the results.”
Thus, a woman would be committing a gravely illicit act if she were to request such a diagnosis with the deliberate intention of having an abortion should the results confirm the existence of a malformation or abnormality. The spouse or relatives or anyone else would similarly be acting in a manner contrary to the moral law if they were to counsel or impose such a diagnostic procedure on the expectant mother with the same intention of possibly proceeding to an abortion. So too the specialist would be guilty of illicit collaboration if, in conducting the diagnosis and in communicating its results, he were deliberately to contribute to establishing or favouring a link between prenatal diagnosis and abortion. (DV, I, 2)
In its Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reiterates the teaching of Donum vitae, saying:
Prenatal diagnosis is permitted when the procedure does not threaten the life or physical integrity of the unborn child or the mother and does not subject them to disproportionate risks; when the diagnosis can provide information to guide preventative care for the mother or pre- or postnatal care for the child; and when the parents, or at least the mother, give free and informed consent. Prenatal diagnosis is not permitted when undertaken with the intention of aborting an unborn child with a serious defect. (2018, no. 50)
The New Eugenics
As Donum vitae and the Ethical and Religious Directives suggest, prenatal testing is not inherently problematic. In a truly tolerant and humane society, such testing could be used to develop or administer treatments to those children that are diagnosed with medical problems, or to help prepare the parents to face the challenges of caring for a child with a disability.
Therefore, a “diagnosis which shows the existence of a malformation or a hereditary illness must not be the equivalent of a death-sentence.” (Donum vitae, I, 2) However, this is not what many parents experience who receive a serious prenatal diagnosis. Instead, they are often told that their child’s disabilities are “incompatible with life” or that the child has a “fatal anomaly.” In many cases, the label “incompatible with life” reflects a judgment of quality of life, not an actual medical diagnosis, and children whose diagnoses are labeled “incompatible with life” are also at risk for being denied basic life-saving treatment.
Unfortunately, in our anti-life society astonishing advances of medical science are being used not to protect, but to attack human life.
Moreover, the financial and legal incentives in our highly litigious culture actually favor the aggressive identification of prenatal abnormalities, and the proactive presentation of abortion as a possible reaction to a positive test. If testing companies fail to detect a disorder, or if an OB/GYN fails to present abortion as a “solution,” there is always the risk of a so-called “wrongful birth” lawsuit. In some cases, doctors have had to pay huge sums in damages, because they did not give a woman the option to abort a child that she later realized she would have aborted.
As I have often warned, the rise of routine prenatal screening for health problems and genetic disorders has ushered in a new age of eugenics – a eugenic movement hidden behind a soothing veneer of lab coats and sterile clinics. In some cases, prenatal testing has given rise to what can only be called a “genocide.”
I do not use that term lightly. A genocide is defined as the attempted destruction of a particular group of people. What else are we to call the systematic elimination of as many as 90% of children diagnosed in utero with Down Syndrome? In some Western countries, such as Iceland, children with Down Syndrome have all but disappeared.
However, our modern technocratic eugenicists do not want to stop at Down Syndrome. They hope to eliminate all genetic disease, not by eliminating the disease itself, but rather unborn children diagnosed with that disease. And their primary tool for accomplishing this is widespread prenatal testing.
Although I am grateful that The New York Times has shed the light of truth on the shoddy prenatal testing industry, I also acknowledge that prenatal testing likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The technology exists, and though it is currently wildly inaccurate, it will likely be improved over time.
As a movement, we must do everything in our power to shift the conversation on prenatal testing, ensuring that every prenatal diagnosis is received within a culture that champions the right to life of every child, including those with disabilities.
More specifically, we in the pro-life movement must find ways to give hope to those parents who receive difficult news. One pro-life organization already doing just that is Be Not Afraid, which calls themselves a non-profit “supporting parents carrying to term following a prenatal diagnosis.”
“We believe that every baby is a gift,” they state on their website, “and we support parents not only in advocating for basic care, but also in obtaining the treatment they deem appropriate for their child after birth no matter the diagnosis.”
If you aren’t familiar with Be Not Afraid, go check out their work. Their website contains a wealth of information about prenatal testing, and about the many genetic disorders that children may suffer in the womb. Sadly, many parents who receive a prenatal diagnosis are left to navigate the aftermath without any support – indeed, often while being pressured by their doctors to do the “right thing” and abort the child.
The existence of Be Not Afraid is further evidence of the remarkable ingenuity of this great “movement for life,” as Pope St. John Paul II called the pro-life movement, with so many brilliant pro-life minds responding to so many different forms of attack on human life by offering their unique gifts.
Let us work and pray that one day we may live in a culture in which the only response to a prenatal diagnosis is renewed resolve to do everything possible to assist and accompany parents in the care of their child, welcoming him or her joyfully and with hope, no matter how short or physically limited his or her life might be.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.