WASHINGTON A new blood test that might empower physicians to screen unborn children for more than 3,000 genetic disorders will result in a "death sentence" for many, a bioethicist says.
In research published June 6, a University of Washington team reported it was able to map the entire genetic code of an unborn baby using a blood sample from the mother, who was 18 weeks into her pregnancy, and saliva from the father. The researchers predicted the noninvasive test could be widely used in several years, enabling screening for thousands of genetic conditions.
The research, however, raises "many ethical questions," the scientists acknowledged, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. Common use of the test likely would produce more abortions, pro-life advocates contended. Children whose screenings indicate unwelcome genetic conditions could become targets for elimination.
"This discovery, like others before it, raises the means/end problem," said bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell. "Everyone wants children to be born with fewer disabilities. That's a good end. But if the means to achieve that end is the destruction of unborn babies, the end doesn't justify the means. In fact, the logic is perverse: Save children from disability by killing them."
Another problem with the test also exists, said Mitchell, professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a biomedical and life issues consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"[W]e will be able to diagnose these conditions long before we can do anything therapeutically for the child. So the diagnosis becomes a death sentence," he said.
The test could result in the elimination of the unborn for reasons that stretch beyond genetic disorders, said bioethics commentator Wesley Smith.
"The list of abortion excuses could spread into cosmetics, hair and eye color, height, propensity to weight gain, the list could go on and on," Smith wrote on his blog.
In addition, he said, "[T]here will be pressure placed on parents to abort those children with the most serious or undesirable conditions as already happens with Down [syndrome]. Such a test could become mandatory as a means of controlling health care costs. … In other words, this test will really be measuring the morality of our culture."
A British scientist told The Telegraph he supports parents being able to know about their unborn child's genetic condition, so they have the option of aborting their baby who, he said, is not actually a human being.
"No potential being has a right to become an actual being abortion is not a 'wrong' to the individual because the individual in question will never have existed," said John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester in England.
"The ability to protect future generations from terrible conditions that will blight their lives seems to me to be an absolute moral responsibility and a duty that we should not shirk," Harris said.
Invasive testing already exists that can predict some genetic disorders during pregnancy, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis is performed on embryos created by in vitro fertilization before they are transferred to a woman's womb.
Unborn children who are diagnosed with Down syndrome and some other genetic conditions already are often aborted. It is estimated 90 percent of unborn babies who are detected to have Down syndrome in this country are aborted. The condition normally results when a person has three copies, rather than two, of chromosome 21.
The new test reported on in the journal Science Translational Medicine would detect many more conditions than are now possible to detect, the researchers said, according to The Telegraph. Observers said the screening is not foolproof, and it will often be unable to forecast how severe the genetic disorder may be in a child.
The research enabled the University of Washington scientists to find which natural mutations appeared during pregnancy, The Telegraph reported. These spontaneous mutations, known as "de novo" mutations, represent the majority of genetic disorders. The researchers compared their screening with DNA taken after the boy's birth and learned they predicted 39 of his 44 mutations, according to the newspaper.