Prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome has long presented an ethical dilemma for the genetic counseling profession. As genetic counselors are fond of saying , we strongly support women’s reproductive decisions, including both continuing and terminating pregnancies wherein a fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or other condition. But also in the oath that genetic counselors swear to,* we claim to be strong supporters of the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. The disconnect between these ethical imperatives leaves genetic counselors open to justifiable criticism from people with disabilities, their families, and their advocates. How can we simultaneously support people with disabilities while at the same time participate in a screening program whose primary purpose is to sort out fetuses who have certain disabilities?
The typical response to this criticism is that patients have choices about whether or not to undergo prenatal screening for Down syndrome, and genetic counselors try to be value neutral in supporting patient choices (for the moment leaving aside the economic and social realities that limit women’s choices and that genetic counselors have no control over). One of the purported benefits of prenatal screening for Down syndrome is that it allows couples to prepare for the birth of a child who may have special needs. And as many of my patients’ obstetricians used to say to them, we can be better prepared medically for the baby’s birth. Seem like reasonable points, no?
Well, they do seem like reasonable counterpoints. But this got me thinking – just how much research has been done on the extent to which prenatal diagnosis enhances familial adaptation to a diagnosis of Down syndrome, and how much does it improve the medical and developmental picture for the newborn with Down syndrome? In short, I wanted to know how much benefit people with Down syndrome and their families gain from prenatal diagnosis.
To help answer this question, I performed a PubMed search using these broad terms: Down syndrome, prenatal diagnosis, prenatal screening. I set the parameters to English language articles with abstracts for the ten years prior to September 18, 2015. This produced 1373 articles, 176 of which I eliminated because they were not primarily about prenatal screening for Down syndrome, leaving 1197 articles. I then read the abstract of each article for evidence that the research addressed the benefit of prenatal screening to postnatal adaptation of families or improved medical outcomes for liveborn children with Down syndrome.
1193 articles addressed sensitivity, specificity, assessing test performance, comparison of screening techniques, patient anxiety, ethical critiques both pro and con, program implementation, patient education, economic/cost benefit analysis, circulating placental DNA, maternal serum biochemical analytes, ultrasound markers, psychological responses, termination rates, decision making, etc..
The number of articles that addressed my primary question? Four.
And even this number is a bit of a stretch. Two of the four articles were speculative pieces about how prenatal diagnosis may one day allow options for treatment. These two articles shared a primary author and one article was basically a slight update of the earlier article.
The other two articles reported on the experiences of women who received a prenatal versus a postnatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. One article reported that women had a difficult time with how the diagnosis was delivered whether it was prenatal or postnatal. The other article reported that a majority of women who received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and continued the pregnancy felt that they would undergo prenatal screening in future pregnancies for emotional preparation.
I recognize the shortcomings of my quick analysis. No doubt I missed a few articles. PubMed search results vary significantly with the search terms and parameters, and I swear sometimes with the phase of the moon (speaking of which, the upcoming eclipse of the Blood Moon/Harvest Moon September 27-28 should be spectacular, though it may affect PubMed searches that are conducted during the event). Abstracts may not accurately convey the research findings. And of course the search does not include articles published in languages other than English or that were published before September, 2005. So if you know of articles that I missed, please point them out in the Comments section below. Heck, do a PubMed search yourself and see what you come up with. Prove me wrong, please.
If we are going to honestly present prenatal screening as a choice, the choices have to be more than Abort or Carry To Term, unless of course we want to make the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the primary purpose of prenatal screening is to avoid the birth of children with Down syndrome. Pregnancy termination is important for many couples and we should support patients in their reproductive decisions whatever their motivations, but we also need to show a wider range of benefits from prenatal screening.
Ten years and not even a handful of published research about the benefits of prenatal screening for people who have the very condition that is being screened for. Come on, we can do better than this. Our patients deserve better. Shame on us.
* – Okay, I admit that I made up the oath part, but it is so ingrained into our core ethos when we are trained that it may as well be the genetic counseling equivalent of the Hippocratic oath.