As a long time admirer, reader and guest blogger, I am thrilled to have been invited to write as a regular contributor for the DNA Exchange. Some recent statements about prenatal testing in the news brought to mind my very first guest post on the DNA Exchange, Information Detoxification, published 5 years ago. So I am going to start this new chapter by going back where I began as a guest blogger, on the topic of the risks of routinizing prenatal genetic testing.
Last week, a genetic testing lab released a statement about their intention to use recent investments “with an eye toward making expanded carrier screening as routine as taking folic acid, noninvasive prenatal screening as routine as an ultrasound, and hereditary cancer screening as well-known as a pap smear.” While this vision is quite positive for the lab’s investors, it is concerning for the future of reproductive autonomy. The underlying goal that all pregnant women should have prenatal testing is not unique to this lab. In fact, there is increasing pressure towards expanding the use of these tests by many labs, likely representing the intense competition in the genetic testing business right now, driving the need to increase test uptake to the largest possible market.
I have mixed feelings about population screening for hereditary cancer, but the implications are completely different when considering prenatal carrier and cfDNA screening. Although prenatal testing is important to many, it is crucial that women and their partners be given the opportunity to make autonomous and informed decisions about whether or not to take these tests. The routinization of prenatal testing is problematic for several reasons: from a social and public policy standpoint, in regards to healthcare economics, and also for individual patient care.
Social and Public Policy
Advocating for reproductive autonomy and informed decisions around prenatal genetic tests was one of the first guiding principles of the genetic counseling profession. This is in part due to the fact that the start of the master’s degree trained genetic counselor coincided with social movements in women’s reproductive rights and also the emergence of the field of bioethics.
The prioritization of patient autonomy in reproductive genetics also arose from the rejection of eugenic ideology and practices that were common in the early part of the 20th century which sought to encourage reproductive of the fittest and to discourage (sometimes forcibly) reproduction among those deemed as defective or unfit.
This history supports concerns that the routinization of prenatal testing may effectively stigmatize those who have an increased chance to have a child with a genetic condition, thereby limiting reproductive freedom. This is especially troubling in the context of the current political and social climate with so many expressing racist, xenophobic, and ableist views, as well as increasing threats to health care security and social services.
Issues regarding the cost of prenatal testing are complex and studies regarding the economic impact of expanding prenatal screening are needed. Such data analysis is complicated by the variability and a lack of transparency in the costs of these tests. While labs vary in their pricing, patients report receiving explanation of benefits representing that the amount billed to their insurance was many thousands of dollars – amounts that likely exceed the entire cost of the prenatal care in some cases.
Without peeling back all of the layers on this topic, there is one clear explanation for why routinization of prenatal testing does not make good financial sense. Given that the purpose of prenatal genetic testing is to inform personal reproductive decisions, in order for these tests to be of value, they must first be desired by the fully informed patient. No matter the price of a prenatal genetic test, it is a needless healthcare cost if the patient does not want it.
Should all patients be routinely counseled about their options for prenatal genetic testing? Absolutely. Practice guidelines for prenatal genetic testing support offering these tests to all women in the context of counseling that supports informed and value-consistent decisions. But this conflicts with the model that the testing labs seem to be promoting, which is to test everyone first and provide the information in follow-up, after testing has already been done. This undermines patient autonomy and can cause harm.
When an individual would use results to facilitate reproductive decisions, testing can be empowering. What is often overlooked in our well-intentioned goals to provide patients with knowledge however, is the potential harm and disempowerment that may result when testing information is not desired. Patients deserve the opportunity to make a choice about whether the information these tests provide is something they want to know or not.
It is imperative of genetic counselors to resist any suggestion that reproductive genetic testing should be routine. I hope that all of us, whether working in the clinic or the lab, will continue to advocate for reproductive autonomy for our patients and hold firm in the goal that all patients should have the opportunity to make informed choices regarding prenatal genetic tests prior to testing. How we move forward with this challenge in both practice and policy is a defining question for our profession.