An ethical stethoscope

Down Syndrome and Medical Ethics

Approximately one in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome. However, this number is significantly lower than it would be without prenatal screening. One recent study showed that between 1989 and 2006, the number of Down syndrome births dropped 11% rather than the expected rise of 42%—and this is largely attributed to the discovery of prenatal tests that can detect Down syndrome in a child while pregnancy termination is still an option.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists currently recommends offering the option of screening tests for Down syndrome to all pregnant women, no matter their age. Even though the risk of having a child with Down syndrome increases as you get older, the majority of Down syndrome babies are actually born to younger women simply because they tend to have more babies overall.

Objections to Screening

Some screening tests assess the overall likelihood that you are carrying a baby with Down syndrome, but are not able to actually diagnose Down syndrome in your baby. Other tests are able to offer more specific diagnoses, but they are also more invasive and increase your risk for miscarriage. Because of this, many people believe that these types of screening tests are unethical and immoral, especially if they result in a woman having an abortion because of the diagnosis.

There are many myths and misconceptions about Down syndrome and the people who have it, so many young mothers may misunderstand what having a child with Down syndrome is really like and choose to terminate the pregnancy before exploring other options. For this reason, many women are choosing to opt out of the prenatal screening for Down syndrome because abortion is not an option for them personally. 

There are some tests that researchers are working on that would completely simplify the ability to diagnose Down syndrome prenatally, by being able to detect the fetal DNA within the mother’s bloodstream as early as nine weeks into the pregnancy. While these types of tests do not carry any risk to the pregnancy, the question must be asked of whether they are morally and ethically necessary for the health of the child, especially if they influence the mother’s choice for abortion.

Last Updated: December 10, 2015