The Problem of Fatally Flawed Prenatal Testing

Prenatal testing has been fatally flawed and has fostered an increase in the number of abortions.

For those of us in the pro-life advocacy community, it was encouraging to read the recent New York Times investigative report finally acknowledging the fact that much of what is promised as accurate prenatal testing for rare chromosomal disorders in unborn children is “usually wrong.” Regarding noninvasive prenatal testing using simple blood draws and prescribed by doctors in more than a third of the pregnant women in America, The Times analysis showed that “positive results on these tests are incorrect about 85 percent of the time.”   

While the high percentage of false positives is news to all of us, most of us have known for more than a decade that prenatal testing has been fatally flawed and leads to many abortions. In fact, The Boston Globe’s New England Center for Investigative Reporting revealed much of this in a report issued on December 14, 2014, with the title: “Oversold prenatal tests spur some to choose abortions.”   

In fact, Boston Globe reporters concluded that the new generation of unregulated prenatal screening tests, including MaterniT21 which exploded onto the market in 2011, are often a “false alarm.” But, in too many cases, women are terminating their pregnancies based on the blood screening tests alone. As The Globe reported: 

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A recent study by another California-based testing company, Natera Inc., which offers a screen called Panorama, found that 6.2 percent of women who received test results showing their fetus at high risk for a chromosomal condition terminated pregnancies without getting a diagnostic test such as an amniocentesis. And at Stanford University, there have been at least three cases of women aborting healthy fetuses that had received a high-risk screen result…In one of the three Stanford cases, the woman actually obtained a confirmatory test and was told the fetus was fine, but aborted anyway because of her faith in the screening company’s accuracy claims.   

Indeed, it is the promise of accuracy of these unregulated prenatal testing companies that is of concern to The Boston Globe and The New York Times reporters. Claiming to detect with “near perfect accuracy” the risk that a fetus may have Down or Edwards syndrome and a growing list of other chromosomal abnormalities, The Globe pointed to MaterniT21’s pamphlets which promise “Never maybe” and Panorama’s statement on its webpage that its test is “99% Accurate, Simple & Trusted.”

Prenatal testing is marketed to all pregnant women, leading The Boston Globe to predict, in 2014, that the prenatal testing industry would be a $3.6 billion global industry by 2019. And although that figure has not been confirmed in The New York Times study revealed last week, they report that “analyst estimates of the market’s size range from $600 million into the billions, and the number of women taking these tests is expected to double by 2025.” All of this is unregulated. 

Related to the advertising claims by the prenatal testing industry, The Times reported that Alberto Gutierrez, the former director of the FDA office that oversees many medical tests, reviewed marketing materials from three testing companies and described them as “problematic” and suggested that “the information they provide is misleading.”

The testing companies claim that if patients receive a positive result, they are instructed to pursue follow-up testing through amniocentesis. But the Boston Globe study has shown that 6 percent of patients who screened positive on the blood tests obtained an abortion without getting another test to confirm the result. And The New York Times points out that amniocentesis cannot be performed until later in pregnancy—in some states, past the point where abortions are legal.  

Indeed, this warning about abortion restrictions—buried deeply in the January 1st investigative piece—may have provided some of the motivation for The New York Times reporters to publish this story to begin with. Advocates for unrestricted access to abortion, The Times Editorial Board warned in a November 27, 2021, op-ed about the ways in which conservative state lawmakers “quickly littered that path with hundreds of restrictions—for instance forcing women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound and view images of the fetus, mandating waiting periods before having an abortion and requiring that minors obtain parental consent.”

The New York Times editorial pages have been warning for months about Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the current case before the Supreme Court which would close the window to abortion in Mississippi after 15 weeks. The Times Editorial Board is predicting that abortion rights may, in fact, be returning to the states—where the pro-life community has always maintained they should have stayed.

The new strategy advanced by The Times is “a concerted political campaign that harnesses public support with a message of openness and pride.” Or, as in the case of the current warnings of the flawed prenatal testing, a requirement that women have access to late-term abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities that cannot be diagnosed definitively until later in the pregnancy.   

The pro-choice side has already begun its political campaign to save unrestricted access to abortion on the pages of The New York Times. We in the pro-life community are grateful for the alarming revelations of The New York Times on the abortions of healthy unborn children because of flawed prenatal testing. But we also need to acknowledge that we will need to step up our efforts because as the focus of saving the lives of unborn children shifts from the courts and onto electoral politics, elections become more important than ever.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

tagged as: Politics

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