Could New Tests Lead to “Extinction” of People with Down Syndrome?

By a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar
By a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As pro-life Americans prepare for their annual March for Life to end abortion, it is worth remembering that the culture of death engendered by Roe, combined with prenatal screening for birth defects, have conspired to dramatically reduce the number of children born with Down Syndrome.

Now, a British journalist has raised the possibility that people with Down Syndrome will one day be extinct.

“Down's Syndrome people risk 'extinction' at the hands of science, fear and ignorance” read the headline in the British newspaper, The Telegraph.

The words stunned me for a moment, as the  people I know with Down Synrome came to mind: sisters Mary and Margaret, Amy, Danny and another Mary.

Tim Stanley, a historian, columnist and leader writer for The Telegraph, suggests that the broad adoption of a simple blood test that looks at cell-free DNA from the placenta in the mother’s blood could result in the eventual “extinction” of people with Down Syndrome. Citing older data that suggest as  many as 90% of parents have choosen to end the pregnancy if their unborn child is diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Stanley expressed alarm that the new test could nudge those numbers even higher.

Stanley begins his column with a fascinating reference to a painting that "hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York called The Adoration of the Christ Child. Created in the 16th century by a Flemish artist, what stands out in this sublime presentation of the Nativity is the detail of the characters standing around the crib. Two of them, an angel and a shepherd, appear to have Down Syndrome."

I've seen that painting before, but never really studied it. Standley suggests that the painting documents the fact that Down Syndrome people have been part of the human race for a long time.

His mention of the painting stirred my own thought that maybe the artist was celebrating how the Divine Child marked a new moment in human history, in which the full dignity of people with this condition was revered and their lives protected. And just as the Father chose to first bring his Son to the poor and marginalized, why not also to those who Down Syndrome? 

Stanley, for his part, is worried about the danger presented by these new blood tests, which screen for Down Syndrome a much earlier date in the pregnancy. The tests are not invasive, like amniocentesis, and so pose less risk of miscarriage. He fears that many expectant mothers will use the test, with a consequent increase in the number of lives lost because of a distrubing diagnosis.

Stanley is right to be worried. Too many expectant women and their spouses don't know people with this condition and so believe various myths that discourage them from continuing with the pregnancy. The myths include the notion that people with Down Syndrome remain childlike, or the outdated information that they will die at an early age. 

The new blood tests, he argues, must be accompanied by an educational campaign that affirms the full humanity of people who are born with these differences and clears up the myths that many physicians do not bother to dispel.

We should applaud Standley's effort to raise the alarm and address public  confusion. But is he right to float a prediction that the tests could result in the “extinction” of people with this condition?

Not so fast, says Mark Bradford, the president of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation USA. Bradford did not address Stanley's column. But he did comment on the impact of the blood tests in an earlier report published by the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute.

However, while Bradley rejects any moral justification for ending the life of an unborn child with Down Syndrome, his research presents a slightly different picture.

Advocates would be far better served by using the statistics provided in this new study, i.e., that it is estimated that abortion following a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome results in a 30% reduction in overall Down Syndrome births. Jamie Natoli, et al., proposed another statistic that correlates well with this study. In a 2012 publication in Prenatal Diagnosis, their research calculated a weighted mean across the U.S. of a 67% termination rate following prenatal diagnosis.

Bradford goes on:

Whatever the statistical realities may be, the number of those who choose abortion after a prenatal diagnosis  is far too high. It should be none. To paraphrase the recently deceased disabilities rights activist, Dr. Adrienne Asch, the only thing prenatal diagnosis can provide is a first impression of who a child will be.

Still, if further research confirm Bradford's data, then it tells us that many more expectant mothers have not be rushed into a decision they may regret for the rest of their lives.  This information is critical because it could hold clues that can guide pro-life physicians and others who seek to reverse the overwhelming tendency of fearful parents to end the pregnancy after they receive the wrong test results. A link to Bradford's report is here.

One final thought about the dark reality of our utilitarian calcuations that justify the killing of unborn children who don't measure up to our standard of human competence and efficiency.

We should applaud research for therapeutic interventions to help people with this condition, but most of our elite sceintific institutions appear to tolerate an intolerable status quo and we have followed their lead. Meanwhile, our lives are increasingly shaped by science's efforts to transcend the limits of human potential. And before long, some of us, and then more of us, will be retired in favor of robots powered by artificial intelligence. We have made this world.