Genetic counseling and prenatal diagnosis are interwoven in a double helix. It is no coincidence that the genetic counseling profession emerged on the heels of the first “genetic” amniocenteses in the late 1960s. Amnio’s and maternal serum screening (MSS) for Down syndrome were the driving forces behind the expansion of the GC job market, fueled by the sudden blossoming of “advanced maternal age” pregnancies that began in the mid to late 1970s and has continued unabated for 30 years. Not only did prenatal testing open up job opportunities, the attendant laboratory, professional, procedural, and overhead fees opened up significant sources of income to medical centers and physicians and provided funds to cover GCs’ salaries.
Prenatal diagnosis also offered GCs the opportunity to develop a unique clinical expertise in risk assessment, interpretation of amnios and MSS results, and patient communication that established clinical value of GCs for patients and referring physicians.
But for all the economic and professional benefits it provided GCs, prenatal diagnosis has its dark side. A number of critics have rightly pointed out that the unwritten message of prenatal diagnosis – as it is perceived across a fairly broad social spectrum –to people with disabilities is “Sorry, you’re not welcome here.”
Yes, I know the counter-arguments. Nobody is forced to have an amnio or an abortion. Parents have their reproductive rights that we unflinchingly support. We all work hard at not trying to consciously influence the routes our patients choose as they travel down the Decision Making Highway. Many of us proudly point to our many patients who have elected to continue such pregnancies. We also fight the good fight for people and families living with disabilities, helping them in their struggles with insurance companies, educational systems, and a complicated and sometimes uninformed medical system.
Hooray for us. That is what we are supposed to do.
But our protests that we are supporting women’s hard earned reproductive rights rather than implementing an evil eugenic agenda does not change the way the message is perceived. The availability of widespread prenatal diagnosis is based on the assumption that most parents will selectively terminate fetuses with disabilities, an assumption supported by most published studies. As I have pointed out in other venues, the decision to use age 35 or older as the indication for amniocentesis was not based on some mythical figure about the risk of amniocentesis. Rather, age 35 was chosen primarily on economic grounds, i.e., by that age, the societal cost of amniocentesis was less than the cost of caring for people with Down syndrome. Let’s face it – many parents will choose to avoid having a child with disabilities if they can do so, and that is what drives prenatal screening.
In the eyes of our critics, GCs play a critical role in the delivery of prenatal diagnosis services, and therefore support the implicit negative message. We are guilty by association if not necessarily by intent.
I do not know of an effective counter argument. Either we choose to acknowledge that this is indeed a valid criticism, the world is sometimes a harsh place, and that is a hard truth of living in a world where women struggle to achieve a full range of reproductive choices. Or we pull out of prenatal diagnosis altogether. I do not think the latter choice is likely to happen.
What are your thoughts? I look forward to reading your comments and insights. But keep in mind the words of Samuel Beckett’s character Estragon, in Waiting for Godot: “Let us try and converse calmly since we are incapable of keeping silent.”