Emotions are high, in the medical world today, as advancements are being made in the field of birth defect testing. A newly developed blood test, known as the cell-free DNA test, cfDNA, can now greatly reduce the risk of pregnant women giving birth to babies with chromosomal abnormalities. However, many pro-life advocates, as well as parents of children born with issues like Down Syndrome, fear that the pregnancy birth defect test may bring a spike in the already climbing number of abortion rates.
The blood test has actually been on the market since November of 2011, but studies have now been released, showing the effectiveness of the new test, in comparison to older testing methods. Cell-free DNA testing looks at minute amounts of fetal DNA in the mother’s bloodstream, giving it the ability to screen for three common genetic disorders: Down syndrome, Edwards Syndrome, and Patau Syndrome. Doctors say the test, considered one of the most crucial clinical tools to surface from the genomics revolution thus far, will allay fear and anxiety for pregnant women concerned about birth defects.
In cases of positive results, the new blood test does not rule out the need for more invasive procedures. Current chromosomal abnormality tests, amniocentesis and chorionic villus, are able to give much more accurate results, but carry with them, a high risk of miscarriage. The Cell-free DNA test, which can be administered as early as ten weeks into the pregnancy, is not meant to be a replacement for those methods, but rather a less invasive way of checking for abnormalities in the first place. Once administered, if the test results are positive, pregnant women would still have to make the choice of whether or not to have more invasive procedures done.
While the new tests mean potential medical problems can be identified much earlier in pregnancy, there is fear that the pregnancy birth defect test will bring a spike in abortion rates. Studies have already shown that, nationally, more than 90 percent of women who discover they are pregnant with a child that has a chromosomal defect choose to get an abortion. Pro-life activists fear this rate will continue to rise with the release of the new test. Indian and Chinese governments have already forbade testing companies from disclosing fetus gender to expectant mothers, fearing it could lead to a rise in the abortion rates of females in those countries.
The test has yet to become standard for all pregnancies. Presently, it is generally reserved for women with high-risk pregnancies. Some women may not even be candidates for the new blood test, such as those suffering from obesity, because they have such a small amount of cell-free DNA in their bloodstream, often making the results less accurate. For those who are candidates, there is still a question of price. The test can cost as much as $2800, more than ten times the amount of typical, current, first-trimester pregnancy screening. US healthcare providers are now in the process of tracking testing companies’ policies, to figure out how much, if any, insurers will pay for the newly released blood tests. Either way, for the women who run the risk of potential pregnancies with chromosomal abnormalities, the ability to be informed far outweighs the cost.
So, will the new pregnancy birth defect test bring a spike in abortion rates, as many fear? According to Dr. Michael Greene, Chief of Obstetrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, the first step is just being able to reliably identify pregnancies that are at risk for abnormalities. “What, if anything, the patient wants to do, is up to them.” After taking standard prenatal tests, Jennifer Fontaine, a young mother from Groveland, Massachusetts, learned that her child might have Edwards Syndrome. “It was 100 percent worth it,” she said of taking the test, later learning that her baby had no chromosomal defects. So, while many women will not get the same weight-lifting news, advancements in the field of medical technology and testing are being made, in the hopes of potentially easing some soon-to-be parents’ emotions during an already very emotional time.
By Melissa A. White-Jantzen