New Testing for Down’s Syndrome

http://www.bioedge.org/index.php/bioethics/bioethics_article/9799#comments

Having just seen this article I am interested in people’s reactions. For example this test will be more accurate than the current one providing greater certainty of knowledge.

However “Down syndrome experts fear that non-invasive tests will eliminate Down syndrome children, even though a recent survey shows that nearly 99% of people with Down syndrome are happy with their lives”

Statements such as this are always interesting. What surprises me is that people talk of eliminating DS children, even though no children are eliminated. It is only an embryo that is aborted, not a child. Moreover people with DS are people and no one is suggesting that we kill people, only that a foetus can be aborted if the parents so wish.

If anything the fact that 99% of people who have DS are happy suggests that parents should not be penalised for carrying an embryo with the condition to term. But it is disingenuous to talk of eliminating children when abortion applies to foetus and embryos, not to existing people.

Sam Walker (PhD Student)

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5 thoughts on “New Testing for Down’s Syndrome

  1. Very interesting points Sam…and yet I wonder, if I abort a fetus that carries that chromosomal anomaly, the result is that a child that may otherwise have been born will not; it seems to me an uncontroversial truth that if I abort a fetus, I will not give birth to that child. If everyone aborted DS foetuses, it seems to be that there would be no DS children…I suspect that the heart of the idea there is that one isn’t it?

  2. Hi Sam,
    I must say I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your blog over the last few weeks and find it delightful that it is now possible for me to argue with you on-line as well as “IRL”.

    In regards to this post though I have a few issues.

    The first is that it looks like, from the quote you have used you have gleaned something that may, in fact not be implied. For, the sentence “Down syndrome experts fear that non-invasive tests will eliminate Down syndrome children” is opaque and thus could mean a number of things:
    Firstly, it could mean what you think: that the author makes the classic and erroneous move common to those who subscribe to a pro-life stance and gives the foetus the status of a child, when it is, of course, not one and that he thus is making the “de re” claim that a specific (or many specific) Down’s Syndrome child will be eliminated. Secondly however, and much more likely (in my humble opinion) is that this sentence expresses nothing more than a concern that these tests will mean that no more children with Down’s Syndrome will be born despite the fact that such children are likely to live happy lives, although it does so using rather emotionally loaded language and thus makes no claims about the elimination of anyone, merely a “de dicto” claim that such testing may result in the elimination of certain types of person.

    Perhaps the following quote from the very same article would have been more fitting:

    “Sequenom has named the test MaterniT21, ironic in view of the fact that nearly all of the children detected with the test will be aborted.”

    The second point however is really just an example of my pedantry: MaterniT21 can be used to detect abnormalities only after the 10th week of gestation and therefore one cannot talk of using it to test embryo’s or abort embryo’s, only foetuses and thus I feel that for the sake of accuracy (which is one of the issues you have with people misleadingly calling embryo’s & foetuses children) you should be more careful in your choice of language.

    Nicola xo

  3. Thanks Nicola and Simona for your comments. I suppose the point I was trying to make, and maybe I could have done better. While Downs testing may indeed lead to foetuses being aborted, and consequently a reduction of the number of people who will exist in the future with the condition, there is no loss of any life, nor of any people. If people have never existed then we are not taking away anything, there is no loss in other words.

    I think that unless a foetus is treated as a person already, and thus abortion leads to a loss, there nay be nothing wrong in aborting on a positive test result. (I’m not claiming here that there is something right in doing so). We could perhaps say that the loss of the potential opportunity of a future life would qualify, but I think that may be too weak. Anyway I would be interested in anyone’s thoughts.

  4. Hi,

    While being definitely “pro-choice”, I think there is a confusion in Sam’s response. Does the proposition “There is a loss” implies “A person is destroyed”? This seems obliquely admitted by your “unless a person is treated as a person already, and thus abortion leads to a loss”. But it looks wrong. First example, with a non-living object: Suppose I destroy a great piece of art, say the Joconde. The painting is not a person. But shouldn’t we say there is a loss – in our sources of aesthetic enjoyment? Second example, with a living object: Suppose I destroy the last member of an endangered non poisonous vegetal species. The flower, say, is not a person. Again, shouldn’t we say there is a loss? You will probably answer: Yes, that’s true; but in your example, the destroyed object is unique for some reason; a DS foetus is not; so the parallel doesn’t work. Ok. So here is a third example, without “uniqueness”: There is a beautiful tree in my garden; it’s not the last of its species; you destroy it. The world contains one less beautiful tree. Isn’ it a loss? And if not, why?

    A second problem in Sam’s response revolves around the idea of actions that can be individually innocuous but collectively harmful. The clearest example thereof is polluting behaviour: nothing serious occurs if I alone throw litters on the beach; but if a sufficiently numerous collection of people do, then the beach is disparaged. So if my wife aborts a DS foetus, and foetuses are not persons, and the destruction of this particular foetus is not somehow a loss, then nothing sad happens (according to you). But if a sufficient number of persons abort DS foetuses, then something sad happens: no more DS persons on earth. I don’t buy this conclusion, because I can’t really see why we should wish a world with more DS persons (or less). But I guess some people see the case from such a “collectively harmful action” perspective.

    Finally, a last point. Let’s assume that there is something regrettable about diminishing the number of DS persons on earth. But here comes the “Replacement Problem”. If Amy aborts a DS foetus, she can have a non-affected child instead. Maybe she only wants one child. The fact is that X being born born can impede Y being born. So the birth of a DS child could impede the birth of a non-affected child. Isnt’it the case the non-birth of a healthy child is a sad thing? If one can regret the non-birth of future people, such a question is clearly open. So opponents of testing should carefully balance diverse scenarios where contrasting sets of people exist or not. Don’t know if that’s clear.

    All the best,

  5. Hi Nicolas,

    I suppose I would argue that even if the end of objects were a loss it would be a loss only be due to it’s value to observing and appreciating entities. I would say that art or a tree have no intrinsic value but only value to persons (and maybe animals if the qualify as observer and appreciator entities not sure) so the loss is only relevant if it is perceived as a loss.

    I guess this means that a foetus could be of value to those who perceive it to have some, perhaps because of it’s potentiality to be a person. But it does not have the intrinsic loss that the death of an existing person would because people have intrinsic value in and of themselves (unless maybe they decide otherwise).

    Moreover a foetus would be more like unmade art or an ungrown tree, in that there is no actual loss of a thing only the loss of the potential of a thing, and that this potential is not sufficient to label the conduct as wrong.

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