New fetal genetic test opens a host of ethical questions


In the not-so-distant past, testing an unborn baby for Down syndrome and other severe genetic disorders required a procedure with a long, gruesome needle and an unnerving risk of miscarriage. But this year, doctors and pregnant women around the country welcomed a new option: a painless genetic screen performed on a sample of the mother-to-be’s blood.

Advances in DNA sequencing have given doctors the power to probe the small fraction of fetal DNA coursing through a pregnant woman’s veins. Approximately 3 to 10 percent of the cell-free DNA in a mother’s blood belongs to her baby, and these fetal blueprints are enough to determine if the baby has the wrong number of certain chromosomes—the cause of some inherited diseases, including Down syndrome. And, instead of an invasive procedure at 15 to 20 weeks of pregnancy, doctors can conduct a genetic screen of the mother’s blood as early as week 10 with a standard blood draw.

Though the technology behind non-invasive prenatal genetic testing officially debuted in October of 2011, this year saw the birth of the first generation of options, with three companies now offering such tests and a fourth on the way. The trending technology has met an expanding market of expecting parents opting for prenatal testing, as well as industry squabbles over patent rights. But perhaps most importantly, the promise of more powerful fetal tests in the near future may breed a new host of ethical questions facing parents and geneticists alike, as they struggle with how much genetic information they want to know and can interpret about an unborn child.  

View the original article here: Year of the Fetus

  • everkns3

    What is the official name/terminology for the test? It is exciting to see that 4 testing companies are adopting this technology already. It will be interesting to hear numbers of tests ordered as these statistics become available. It will also be interesting to watch what insurance companies do with this. In cases where parents are intentionally screening a known genetic disorder of one parent, perhaps a comparison with invasive procedure that factors in and the invasive test risk would make this new procedure cost comparable? Of course, the decisions parents make when they learn the test result is ethically and morally challenging, but no different in this described case than by the former technique. It is possible that positive disease diagnosis will lead the parents to terminate. For the population of adults carrying signifcant genetic abnormalities but with heath and quality of life enough to consider starting a family, this is a very interesting topic.