Prenatal Testing and Abortion

 “People say, ‘The price of genetic diseases is high. If these individuals could be eliminated early on, the savings would be enormous.’ It cannot be denied that the price of these diseases is high…, [b]ut we can assign a value to that price: It is precisely what society must pay to be fully human.”
Jérôme Lejeune, French pediatrician, geneticist, and Down Syndrome research pioneer

Culture of life, culture of death—how big is the divide? Here’s one measure.

The other day I caught a story on NPR about researchers identifying genetic markers for mental illness in utero. The following is a quotation from the transcript. Read it, and then jot down the first word that pops in your head:

Having a map like this is important because many psychiatric and behavioral problems appear to begin before birth, “even though they may not manifest until teenage years or even the early 20s,” says Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

OK, what was your word? “Provocative,” perhaps? “Fascinating,” or “Wow!” even?

How about “Abortion?” That was my first thought, and my wife reacted similarly when I  brought the story to her attention. If you’re committed to building a culture of life, I imagine that was your reaction as well.

But could it be that we pro-lifers just tend to be a bit paranoid? Could it be that my wife and I simply overreact to stories like this, discerning nefarious anti-life implications where none are warranted?

I don’t think so.

Inescapable Link to Abortion
To begin with, it comes as no surprise that the story itself is unabashedly rooted in abortion. The researchers obtained the brains they studied from four aborted fetuses, “a practice,” the NPR story notes, “that the Obama administration has authorized over the objections of abortion opponents”—you know, paranoid pro-lifers like you and me. So, even if the research does in fact lead to life-affirming therapies, it will be forever and inexorably tainted by it’s life-destroying origins.

And what of those potential life-affirming therapies? The NPR report is curiously silent on this point. Perhaps that is not unusual since this is ground-breaking research in its earliest stages. Nevertheless, there are telling gaps in the story where at least some speculation regarding future clinical applications would’ve been appropriate—maybe even expected. Take, for instance, this observation regarding autism, including a comment from Ed Lein of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science:

[T]he map shows that genes associated with autism appear to be acting on a specific type of brain cell in a part of the brain called the neocortex. That suggests “we should be looking at this particular type of cell in the neocortex, and furthermore that we should probably be looking very early in the prenatal stages for the origin of autism,” Lein says.

We all know that autism awareness and advocacy is very prominent these days, so shouldn’t a report on these exciting brain mapping developments include some kind of comment regarding the possibility of a prenatal cure? Instead, what follows in the NPR story is a discussion of how human brains differ from mouse brains, and how fetal brains differ from adult brains. The autism question is sidelined.

In a separate NBC News story, Lein held out a little more hope:

The findings are also in line with other research suggesting that early intervention can make a big difference for children with autism. “There’s converging evidence on a place in space and time where we should be putting our focus,” Lein said.

More hope for autistic children already born, yes, but still very vague with regards to prenatal implications—at least from the researchers’ vantage point. But those of us who follow such stories closely, the prenatal implications are all too clear: Once the genetic markers for mental illnesses like autism are identified and confirmed, and a test is developed that is cost effective from the heath insurers’ perspective, parents will be encouraged to screen their pregnancies accordingly, and babies destined for autism will be eliminated just as Down syndrome children are.

Eugenics Given a New Lease on Life
Does that sound crazy? Maybe, but it’s really just Margaret Sanger’s eugenicist dream come true. Sanger, the founder of what has become the international Planned Parenthood organization, was known to rail against those she labeled “morons,” “imbeciles,” and “mental defectives,” and she especially advocated for expanded birth control access for the lower strata of society in order to be rid of such persons. Sanger declared that “the greatest crime of modern civilization” was “permitting motherhood to be left to blind chance, and to be mainly a function of the most abysmally ignorant and irresponsible classes of the community.” And what Sanger wasn’t able to accomplish with birth control alone, her heirs are certainly accomplishing with prenatal testing and selective abortion.

And it’s not just mental illness and Down syndrome in the eugenicist cross hairs. Consider these sobering words from Nick Cohen writing in The Observer:

Suppose researchers claim to identify gay genes. Their discovery would be pseudo-science. A Gordian knot of environmental, cultural and hormonal influences would be as important in determining sexual preference. But there they would be on the web and in the text books: gay genes. Parents, who hated the idea of a gay child, could demand screenings and abortions. Why not? Parents who hate the idea of a daughter have unleashed a “gendercide” across China and northern India, where there are now 120 boys being born for every 100 girls.

The new research on fetal brain development is hot off the press, but we’d have to be naive to think that there aren’t people already thinking about how they can cash in on this new research—and I’m not talking about prenatal curative therapies. Let’s face it: Getting rid of a problem (in this case, human beings with a problem) is always easier (and sometimes more lucrative) than solving the problem itself.

Self-Inflicted Human Extinction?
Which calls to mind another story I heard on NPRthis time, about Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book, The Sixth Extinction, in which she argues that, following on the heels of five massive natural extinctions, mankind is currently responsible for another ongoing global extinction of species that is as big as its predecessors, and could prove to be one of our most significant legacies on the planet.

Serious as Kolbert’s claims are, they pale in comparison to what some are calling a Seventh Extinction, in which man is projected to, in essence, wipe himself out.

Projection? It’s already happening. First, it was Down’s and girls; next it could be autism and other brain disorders; perhaps later, gays and lesbians; and then, who knows?

In any case, given the current penchant for cleansing the gene pool, it’s not a bad idea to be on guard, especially when your obstetrician starts talking to you about prenatal testing. And as far as the new fetal brain mapping is concerned, I like this comment from Brussels researcher Pierre Vanderhaeghen: “It’s always difficult to know what will come out of it.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared April 6, 2014 on the author’s blog “One Thousand Words a Week” and is reprinted with permission. Above is an image of a developing fetal brain. (Photo credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science.)

Richard Becker


Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

  • jeremiah_methusela

    In fact Richard, my first thought was murder, as I could guess what was coming. It was stimulated by your mention of 20 yr olds, not that their lives are more precious or valuable than the unborn.
    Superb article. Thank you.

  • stpetric

    I’ve been opposed to abortion for many years, but the question took on a new and personal salience for me three years ago. In 2011 I was diagnosed with a genetic condition that leads to blindness. At present there is no treatment for it.

    There are several known genetic mutations that lead to this disorder, so for now it’s prohibitively expensive to screen for them routinely. But if (or when) routine prenatal screening becomes practical, its principal use will be to identify babies for abortion–to spare the child and parents the burden of eventual blindness.

    I don’t think my own mother would have chosen abortion, but if the testing existed she *might* have–and realizing that was a chilling moment. The prospect of blindness is one I’d rather not face, but that doesn’t mean I’d prefer death.

    Further evaluation suggests the 2011 diagnosis *may* have been wrong, in which case the discussion above would be moot. Nevertheless, the impact of prenatal diagnosis on decisions to abort has had its effect on me.

  • sparrowhawk58

    Thank you for this article. I have been saying this for years.

    My eldest child is now 23. My husband and I declined pre-natal testing even though we were pressured to go through with it.

    Three of our peers, expecting first babies around the same time, DID allow some screening. One was told the baby would be born with cancer, another that the baby would have severe cognitive disabilities, and the third that the baby would be born without a brain (anencephalic).

    All three babies were born normal and healthy, and are now educated young adults leading productive lives.

    We did not know any of these stories until after the children were born. All the parents were practicing Catholics. I often wonder how many young, nervous, first-time parents are pressured into testing, and then when a false positive shows up, are then pressured into “cutting their losses and starting again.”

    It makes sense for medical providers to perform a cheap abortion rather than spend huge amounts of money on critical care over the course of years. I wonder how many bonuses are given for this sort of counsel.

    There is a huge untold story here. There are a lot of heartbroken parents out there. Not to mention the lives that were snuffed out in utero. And not just the “healthy” offspring, but special-needs babies whose situations would have been manageable, and who would have led enriched and enriching lives, had their parents not been bullied into killing them.

  • barbarajoanne

    A year ago I mentioned to my sister the death of a friend’s three-year-old grandchild from Tay-Sachs. Her only response was, “The patents should have had it aborted!” She was outraged and bewildered at their bringing the child, one that had been a delight to its family, into the world. She viewed the parents as cruel and selfish. My reason for writing this is to point out that hers is not the view of a nasty individual. (Although it is a nasty view.) She was raised a Christian and is a good, kind, loving person with three daughters. That this good and kind person could and did automatically react this way shows me just how deeply, and swiftly too, our culture has gone off the deep end. Just how quickly the “culture of death” has gone mainstream. Just how effectively propaganda for abortion has been.

  • Pingback: Loved, Lost, Found: A Gift for Mother’s Day -

  • This letter from a mother on George Tiller’s website says it all:

  • Ruth Rocker

    Even if the scientists can eventually get this testing to be 100% accurate 100% of the time, it doesn’t justify abortion. That is just another route to man placing himself at the center of the universe and deciding who can live and who can die before the child even has a chance at life.

    And the probability of these kinds of tests become that accurate is very slim. Even some of the long established tests used, like for pregnancy, can still give false readings.

    Once you start hearing excuses and justifications, you can be sure whoever said it KNOWS what they are doing/saying is wrong. Those excuses and justifications are more for themselves than for anyone else. You have to shout down your conscience in order to continue to do evil and that’s what this is – shouting down. How sad.

  • Steve Special

    A fetus is like a pile of 2x4s. That pile is a potential house, not an actual one. Burning that pile of 2x4s is not the same as burning down a house. Ditto for aborting fetuses.
    Being able to screen out fetuses that are defective saves everybody time, money and heartbreak. I somewhat agree with the comment of “how could they bring a known defective to term.” Since it is the government (my tax dollars) being spend on the care of the defective child, I should have a say in the matter

    • The_Monk

      A pile of lumber does not contain the blueprint for the house. When the DNA of the sperm and egg combine, the resultant DNA – which is not the mother’s alone, nor the father’s – has the complete genetic code for a new human.
      Your analysis that screening out defective fetuses “saves everybody time, money and heartbreak” is defective. It cannot guarantee that the aborted baby – cum adult – feels all that privileged. And having known a number of parents who held out and brought a special needs kid into the world, I can tell you firsthand that not all parents think or feel the way you ascribe.
      Your utilititarianism might earn you a place of honor in the hall of monsters. Is that your goal?…

    • Rick Becker

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to my article, Steve, but I couldn’t disagree with you more. As ‘The Monk’ states below, the preborn baby – even from the very moment of fertilization – is a new human organism, distinct from both biological father and the host biological mother. Far from being akin to a pile of 2x4s, the preborn life is more like a young relation coming to visit. All it takes is time and a change of location, and the visitor will be right there in front of you!

      Also, you make an assumption that everyone knows what ‘defective’ means, and I totally reject that notion. Many would reject my son with Down’s as defective, but why stop there? What about the baby born with an unsightly birthmark? Or too much hair? Or too little hair? Or even the wrong color hair? Once we accept that defective babies are expendable like defective widgets from Walmart, there’s no limit to the killing.