Imperfect Pregnancies: What Ilana Löwy Has To Tell Us About The History of Prenatal Testing

“It seems to me that all the gentlemen agree, some more explicitly than others, that to abort is a good thing and should be encouraged.”
– from a discussion reported in Early Diagnosis of Human Genetic Defects: Scientific and Ethical Considerations, Maureen Harris (ed). National Institutes of Health, 1970.

I sometimes feel like a lone voice howling in the wind-swept darkness when I argue that any opinion, policy, or analysis of prenatal testing must be rooted in historical context. Often these endeavors are informed by technical aspects of a test, such as sensitivity, specificity, cost, and positive predictive value, sometimes accompanied by vague mumblings about “ethical considerations” and “women’s choices.” But these discussions are inadequate unless they also take into account the historical, social, cultural, and economic factors behind the development, expansion, acceptance, and critiques of genetic testing technologies.

To develop a full understanding of prenatal testing, we need to ask difficult questions with thorny, complicated and uncomfortable answers. What was the impetus for the introduction of prenatal diagnosis in the 1960s and 1970s? Why were researchers studying birth defects, cell culturing techniques, and karyotypes at that particular time? How have changing attitudes toward disability, abortion, and reproductive rights shaped, and been shaped by, prenatal diagnosis? What path does a test follow from being offered to a very small and select percentage of the pregnant population to becoming a routine part of every pregnancy? Why are there regional and historical differences in the acceptance, application, and history of prenatal testing? Why is it nearly impossible to have a discussion about prenatal screening that is not also a discussion about abortion?

Well, I don’t feel so lonely anymore after having read Ilana Löwy’s new book, Imperfect Pregnancies: A History of Birth Defects & Prenatal Diagnosis (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). The title pretty much tells you what the book is about, but it is more than just a recitation of discoveries and events. The author, an emerita research fellow at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, argues that prenatal testing can best be understood in the context of Michel Foucault’s concept of a dispositif – loosely speaking, the institutions, social factors, laws, regulations, scientific and professional practices that create, maintain, and reinforce a body of knowledge and give it power (no doubt some Foucault scholar will take issue with my description, but you get the general idea). But Löwy’s book is not a high falutin’ study of abstract theories of knowledge. It is concretely embedded in a richly detailed analysis – some of it original and some of it summarizing the work of others – of how we have arrived at the point where prenatal testing, particularly ultrasonography and now NIPT, has become integrated into the routine care of nearly all pregnant women in many Westernized countries.

Let me acknowledge some intellectual conflicts of interest up front: the author cites some postings to The DNA Exchange by me and others, references some of my publications, and thanks me – among many others – in her introductory section. No doubt these small ego strokes influenced my perceptions of the book in ways that I can’t fully recognize.

Imperfect Pregnancies opens with the somewhat artibitrary but reasonable starting point in the late 19th century and the work of obstetricians John Ballantyne and Adolphe Pinard, in Scotland and France respectively, on the nature and causes of birth defects and the medical supervision of pregnancy that they felt was necessary to ensure the delivery of a healthy baby. From there she ties in the history of cytogenetics and karyotyping, congenital malformations and dysmorphology, the emergence of amniocentesis and prenatal ultrasonography in the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of serum and sonographic screening for Down syndrome in the 1980s and 1990s, and right up to the  latest testing technologies of the early 21st century such as comparative genomic arrays and noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT).

This is not a scolding work that draws a straight historical line from eugenics to prenatal diagnosis. While eugenic criticisms are certainly valid concerns about the potential ramifications of prenatal testing and that is true that the development of prenatal diagnosis was a clear reflection of negative attitudes toward disability, the Eugenics Movement per se was not a driving historical engine behind prenatal testing. Still, Löwy makes it clear that prenatal diagnosis was established in the context of a public health model to permit and passively encourage abortion (as the introductory quote at the start of my posting suggests) of aneuploid or otherwise “defective” fetuses under the justification of allowing parents to have as healthy a baby as possible, and that was maintained by the social, ethical, medical, legal, and economic factors that made this possible (i.e., the dispositif). Pregnant women were enticed by tests that offered reassurance but some were left with the messy situation of what to do when the testing did not come back with normal results and had to make extraordinarily difficult decisions about how to proceed in largely uncharted territory, a situation genetic counselors know all too well. In the words of one researcher, women were forced “to become skilled managers of fetal risk.”

The author brings an international perspective to her narrative, including experiences with prenatal testing in the US, the UK, France, Israel, Brazil, and Scandinavia, among others. Prenatal testing is managed differently in each country according to unique local circumstances and this has an impact on uptake of testing and abortion. For example, in the Netherlands, where a detailed discussion of screening is routinely incorporated into pregnancies largely by midwives in a non-medical setting, the uptake of testing is much lower than in countries where there is less discussion and is physician driven. In Brazil, where abortion for fetal indications is limited to anencephaly, the uptake of NIPT is much greater among upper socio-economic status who have access to safe (if technically illegal) abortion compared to poorer women who do not have such ready access. Laboratory marketing has taken advantage of the social status associated with having the latest medical tests among Brazilian women, especially during pregnancy, to further integrate NIPT into routine care. In places around the world where women are likely to leave the work force and devote themselves full-time to child rearing, the uptake of prenatal testing and abortion is lower than in areas where women continue to work after childbirth.

The limitations of the early technologies are somewhat shocking from the biased perspective of today. When John Edwards analyzed the unbanded karyotype of  the first patient with his eponymous syndrome, he thought the underlying cytogenetic abnormality was trisomy 17 rather than trisomy 18 until Klaus Patau (who first described trisomy 13) set him straight. In Riis and Fuchs first reports of prenatal diagnosis of fetal sex among hemophilia carriers in Denmark in 1960, one woman proved to have a female fetus that she miscarried after amniocentesis, went on to have another female fetus that also miscarried after amniocentesis, a third pregnancy that was a male and was aborted, and finally had a fourth pregnancy in which the patient successfully carried the pregnancy to term after a female fetus was correctly identified by amniocentesis (I can envision many prenatal genetic counselors simultaneously nodding and shaking their heads right now). Of the first 20 attempts at identification of fetal sex among hemophilia carriers in Riis and Fuchs series, 17 were successful, two resulted in failure to establish fetal sex, and one female fetus was mistakenly identified as male and the pregnancy was terminated (I can hear many prenatal genetic counselors now saying “Ouch!”).

There are a few areas I think the author leaves largely under-explored. Although she gives thoughtful discussion to genetic counselors, I think she understates their importance in ushering in, shaping, and managing each new prenatal testing technology. We have been the boots on the ground as each test was introduced into clinical practice, more or less left alone with patients to negotiate the complicated medical, ethical, and psychological ramifications of “simple blood tests” and “routine sonograms” gone awry.

In the early sections of the book Löwy details the role that obstetricians played in the historical pathways leading up to prenatal testing. However, there was little mention of the obstetricians who worked closely with clinical geneticists and sometimes became board certified in genetics themselves in the 1970s and 1980s – Mickey Golbus, Larry Karp, Mike Mennuti, and Joe Leigh Simpson, to name a few.

I would also like to have seen fuller discussion of the Professional Liability Alert issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in May of 1985, which stated: It is now imperative that you investigate the availability of these tests in your area and familiarize yourself with the procedure, location, and mechanism of the follow-up tests to screen for neural tube defects. Although to the best of my knowledge no one has ever studied the impact of this Alert on the uptake of maternal serum screening in the US, I know that the immediate  impact in my neck of the woods was profound and long-lasting. Most of the obstetrical care providers in the Seattle area suddenly started strongly recommending AFP screening to their patients and it set the tone for the ready acceptance of most other prenatal screening tests that followed over the next 30 years. Although the book briefly mentions obstetricians’ concerns about legal liability, she does not go further down this street and I believe incorrectly attributes it to the AMA’s “concerns.”

But these latter points do not detract from the overall achievements and arguments of Imperfect Pregnancies. If you are a supporter or a critic of prenatal testing, or, like many people, decidedly ambiguous, there is much that you will learn and much that will make you pause and re-examine your own views and knowledge base.

NEWS FROM AROUND THE DNA EXCHANGESupport The Genetics Literary Community

I am delighted and excited to announce that The DNA Ex’s own Laura Hercher is now also contributing an online column for Genome magazine called GenomeCulture. Read her first installment When Genetics Race Problems Rears Its Ugly Head.

Tony Holzman, now retired from Johns Hopkins and who contributed so much valuable research on the social, ethical, and psychological aspects of genetics, is now a novelist. He has published several novels including Blame, about murder and intrigue in genetics research at the NIH. Tony is now working on publishing his newest novel, The Bethune Murals. The novel is based on the true life story of a physician who was diagnosed with TB and was confined to the Trudeau Sanitarium in the 1920s and who produced a remarkable set of murals on paper used to wrap laundry at the institution. Tony is looking to self published his book through Amazon but needs to get enough votes in an Amazon competition. If you have an Amazon account, you can vote for Tony here.


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