According to an article in the Washington Post, within a year pregnant women will be able to test for Down syndrome using a simple blood test at 9 weeks into pregnancy.
And, according to researchers, within 5-10 years a prenatal blood test will be able to detect a whole lot more eye color, height, chance of being gay, chance for certain cancers, depression and as many as 100-200 diseases, including Alzheimer’s. We’ve long contemplated these possibilities but now it seems the reality is close upon us.
The easy and early blood test for chromosomal abnormalities will likely come as a relief to those who would opt for more invasive genetic testing like the CVS or amniocentesis which carry a risk of miscarriage. But the fact that we’ll soon be able to get so much advance information about our unborn kids brings up all manner of ethical questions.
Here are a couple of quotes from the thought-provoking piece published yesterday by the Associated Press, “Could prenatal DNA testing open Pandora’s box?” by Malcolm Ritter.
“This really changes the experience of what it will be like to be pregnant and have a child,” said Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, Calif. “I keep coming up with the word, game-changer.” She wonders if parents would withhold their commitment to a pregnancy until test results show a fetus is “good enough” to be born. And what, she asks, is good enough? She and others worry about how well couples will be able to understand this flood of information, and just what should be revealed.
“That knowledge has a flip side. ‘How much responsibility are we expecting people to take for the genetic makeup of any child they might have?’ asks Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank near New York City. If a child is born with a condition that could have been detected, the presence of the test changes that outcome ‘from something that happened to you, to something that you participated in,’ she says. ‘That’s a very big burden to place on would-be parents,’ she said, adding that it’s hard for a pregnant woman to refuse any test for a medical condition because it feels like the responsible thing to do.”
The culture of consumerism has already overlapped with genetic testing, it’s hard to imagine that expectant parents wouldn’t be put through the ringer trying to decide what constitutes a “healthy” future for an unborn child, whether this has to do with fitting in or having a 50% chance of developing a particular kind of cancer. There is already a movement of concerned parents and advocates for the mentally disabled about the way Down syndrome has become a part of a routine genetic testing conversation with older parents about whether to continue a pregnancy.
The other question is how much will we get from this debate? We can’t turn back the technological clock. If we opt not to test, there’s the still the fact that the test exists. We will all have a relationship to that potential for information, whether we choose to get it or not.
How much would you want to know about your unborn child? Would you turn down testing for disease-prediction? For eye color? If you could find out your son or daughter might be gay, would you? Do you imagine a future where genetic testing becomes yet another way for us to be savvy (ruthless?) consumers? And would this feel like a new freedom or a heavy burden?
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