Bioethics News

Ethical issues in foetal genome sequencing. New level of complexity to medical, family and social decisions resulting from this prenatal diagnosis

Regardless of the legal judgment that abortion deserves in different countries, any action that may induce or facilitate abortion is ethically unacceptable.

In 2012, a technique was developed that enabled the foetal genome to be determined in the first trimester of pregnancy, using a small sample of the mother’s blood (Nature 2012, 487,320-4. Erratum Nature 2012; 489,326). This attractive novel technique has opened up new medical possibilities, but also objective ethical questions. A recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (370; 195-197) discussed this topic.

There is no doubt that this new possibility adds a new level of complexity to medical, family and social decisions resulting from prenatal diagnosis.

As discussed in the article, information can be obtained on some foetal medical issues with the usual methods, such as chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis. With genomic analysis however, information can not only be obtained on possible diseases, but also on types of autosomal recessive diseases (e.g. Tay-Sachs disease), or the risk that the future child will develop a disease such as diabetes or some type of cancer in adulthood, especially breast and ovarian cancer in women. Knowing the risks of future diseases can be used for the good of the foetus, if prenatal treatments can be applied, but also against their life if abortion is favoured.

This therefore raises several ethical questions, such as, “Should foetal genome studies be routinely offered to everyone?” or “Are parents entitled to know their future child’s genetic information?” One criterion that is probably essential to establish the ethicality of these practices, is that they are always used in the best interests of the child.

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.