A new report by the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Non-invasive prenatal testing: ethical issues”, has probably pleased no one by trying to steer a course between banning abortions for sex-selection and allowing abortions for the most common kind of foetal abnormalities.
NIPT is a major breakthrough. It uses a blood sample taken from the pregnant woman and can be done from 9 or 10 weeks of pregnancy. It analyses DNA from the placenta that circulates in the woman’s blood to estimate the chance that the fetus has Down’s, Edwards’ or Patau’s syndromes, as well as single-gene disorders like cystic fibrosis and achondroplasia. It can also determine its sex.
The test is currently available in the UK through private hospitals and clinics, and in some NHS (ie, public) hospitals. Last year, the UK Government announced that from 2018, the NHS will offer NIPT to pregnant women who have been found through initial screening to have at least a 1 in 150 likelihood of having a fetus with Down’s, Patau’s or Edwards’ syndromes.
The report says that NIPT should lead to fewer false results and fewer diagnostic tests, which carry a small risk of miscarriage. In the case of Down syndrome fetuses, 200 more would be identified (with 90% or more being aborted) and 17 fewer miscarriages of healthy foetuses because of invasive tests.
In addition, the Nuffield Council calls for a moratorium on the use of NIPT in sequencing the whole genome of fetuses; it wants a ban on its use in finding out the sex of the fetus because that would lead to sex-selective abortion.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.