Down Syndrome and prenatal screening

Prenatal screening and Down Syndrome

In a guest post in the New York Times (December 14, 2010), Amy Julia Becker wrote about her third pregnancy and prenatal screening.

When Julia Becker was expecting her third child, she and her husband declined prenatal testing. She was 32 years old and her first child was born with Down Syndrome. Since the first child, Penny, had Down Syndrome, the chances of having another baby with the condition were significantly higher: from 1 in 1000, to 1 in 100.

Julia describes her anxiety before her prenatal appointment with her doctor: “…My dread as I walked into the doctor’s office didn’t come from the thought that this new baby might have an extra chromosome. My dread arose from the prospect of talking to a doctor about prenatal testing.”

Screening tests involve ultrasound and blood work to check hormone levels in the mother. An ultrasound can evaluate certain areas of a baby’s anatomy. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that all pregnant women receive prenatal screening for Down Syndrome regardless of age. The Canadian Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends that every Canadian woman “should be offered the choice to access non-invasive prenatal screening methods involving maternal blood tests or ultrasounds.”

These tests which can identify if the baby has Down syndrome are 85 to 90% accurate. Prenatal screening can be beneficial by helping parents prepare for a Down syndrome baby. Many women who have the knowledge ahead of time are then able to be better prepared for any challenges or health complications. 

Sadly however, prenatal screening has resulted in abortion when the possibility of Down Syndrome is identified in an unborn baby. Studies indicate that 85-90% of women choose to have an abortion when they find out that their unborn baby has Down Syndrome.

But Julia insists that Down Syndrome can not define the fullness of a human life. When her daughter was born, they were given a list of potential problems that could happen, but she says that it “could never have predicted the pride we felt when Penny learned to write her name, when she, after months of practice, jumped off the ground with two feet, when she finally progressed to big-girl underwear… And no list of developmental problems told us that empathy would be easier for her, that her eyes would well with tears and she would run to console her little brother when he falls and cries…”

When Down syndrome is seen as a burden and the only thing emphasized is suffering and health complications, women end up aborting when they find out their baby has Down syndrome. However, studies have shown the huge impact children with Down syndrome have on their families and the people in their community. Julia explains that she and her husband chose to decline the prenatal testing “not because we assume this baby in my womb has the typical 46 chromosomes. We declined prenatal testing because we would welcome another child with Down syndrome.”

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