Prenatal Testing Background


The ethical issues associated with prenatal screening have come to the fore in New Zealand in the last few months. In March 2007 the Ministry of Health released "A Report of the Antenatal Down Syndrome Screening Advisory Group to the National Screening Unit, January 2007." In the foreword of this report Dr Paul Harper notes that in New Zealand "screening tests [for Down syndrome] have crept into practice in an ad hoc manner with little consideration about the most appropriate tests to use or the ethical and social consequences of this type of screening."

Prenatal testing raises complex ethical questions relating to parental choice and reproductive autonomy, termination of pregnancy, the rights and moral status of the embryo/fetus, consent and the impact on persons with disabilities. The Advisory Group, which was made up of a diverse range of New Zealanders including representatives from the disability sector, was unable to reach unanimous agreement on the best way forward. There was, however, unanimous agreement that the current risk assessment process is unsafe and inequitable and should not continue because present methods "result in women being unnecessarily referred for invasive diagnostic procedures that can result in miscarriages."

Given the ready availability of abortion within New Zealand, we should be extremely concerned about the consequences of generating increasingly more detailed and complex genetic information about the yet-to-be born; consequences for unborn life and for society in general. The negative consequences for the unborn, and in particular for those with disabilities, are readily acknowledged in the Advisory Group's Report: "... although the aim [of any screening programme] may not be to decrease the incidence of Down syndrome, the effect of any screening programme would inevitably be to decrease the incidence of Down syndrome (p. 65)." Such comments give cause for extreme concern.

It is vital that full and broad public consultation on antenatal screening be allowed to take place so that a proper debate can be had regarding the cultural, spiritual and ethical issues associated with such practices. To this end, The Nathaniel Centre supports a project on pre-birth testing about to be implemented by The New Zealand Bioethics Council, Toi te Taio. All New Zealanders are encouraged to have their say and to be part of the public deliberation taking place in October/November 2007.