June 8, 2012

New non-invasive pre-natal test raises enormous ethical issues


"What if you could read much of your child's medical future while it was still in the womb? Taking a major step toward that goal, one fraught with therapeutic potential and ethical questions, scientists have now accurately predicted almost the whole genome of an unborn child by sequencing DNA from the mother's blood and DNA from the father's saliva."
       — From "Sequencing the Unborn," which appeared in "Science Now."

Publishing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers at the University of Washington say they have found a new noninvasive  procedure that may allow women someday soon to  test their unborn babies for more than 3,500 genetic disorders. Researchers believe problems will be worked out within five years.

The team pieced together the entire genetic profile of an unborn baby only 18.5 weeks after conception by taking plasma from the mother and a swab of saliva from the father.

"They then  reconstructed the genetic code of the unborn baby, then tested the accuracy of the results by using umbilical cord blood after the baby was born," ABC News reported. The method was repeated in another couple on a younger baby (8.2 weeks after conception), a time when less fetal DNA is in the mother's blood.

"The primary significance of this is that  …  it may broaden the availability of genetic screening to more patients, while at the same time screening for much larger panels of disorders than can currently be detected," said Jacob Kitzman, who worked on the project.

The lead scientist, Dr Jay Shendure, said, "This work opens up the possibility that we will be able to scan the whole genome of the fetus for more than 3,000 single-gene disorders through a single, non-invasive test."

Added Kitzman, "The improved resolution is like going from being able to see that two books are stuck together to being able to notice one word mis-spelled on a page."

The 800 pound elephant in the room are the eugenic implications. Already upwards of 90% of babies found to have Down syndrome are aborted.

"The scientists say their new test would identify far more conditions, caused by genetic errors," reports Stephen Adams, of the British newspaper, the Guardian. "However, they warned it raised 'many ethical questions' because the results could be used as a basis for abortion."

ABC News addressed the abortion implications straight on its story:

"When the time comes for the procedure to be used in a clinical setting though, Kitzman said clinicians would face the challenge of interpreting these results and communicating them with expectant parents — both the results themselves and the uncertainties that come with them.

"While these advances will help better understand risk factors for illness, [bioethicist Art] Caplan predicted 'they will be among the most controversial forms of testing ever to appear in medicine as the debate over abortion and disabilities both shift to whole genome genetic testing.'"

Bioethicist Wesley Smith is not a fan of the new test. Writing on his blog, Smith observed, "This test, if it comes to pass, will not only be used to eradicate children with Down, cleft palate, and dwarfism–as already happens–but also the propensity for adult onset cancer.  Oh yea, that already happens with embryo screening." Smith added,  "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."

Contact: Dave Andrusko
Source: National Right to Life