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Fixing the System Against Down Syndrome Prenatal Testing


The proposal last autumn to introduce the non-invasive prenatal test for Down syndrome, known as NIPT, on the UK’s National Health Service from 2018 has sparked a reaction within both the Down syndrome and the medical communities. Creators and many medics hail the test as offering women the chance to know with 99 percent certainty if their baby will be born with the genetic condition, while avoiding the previous invasive test. Reactions to the news have been both positive and negative, but also seem to be largely divided into two main groups: those with medical experience and those with personal experience of Down syndrome.

One of the allegedly major benefits of the NIPT is that mothers to be will know with almost 100 percent accuracy if their baby has Down syndrome, without the risks associated with the current amniocentesis test. Amniocentesis involves taking a sample of the amniotic fluid around the baby, not only is it less accurate, but it also carries a chance of inducing a miscarriage. The creators of NIPT argue that thanks to the availability of the new test, women will no longer have to take this risk. Yet, women were never forced to undergo this test, it has always been optional. However, the high numbers of women opting for it, despite the risk, demonstrates how a one percent chance of losing the baby is worth taking in order to be sure if the baby has Down syndrome.

Defenders of NIPT have argued there’s no evidence its introduction will lead to an increase in the termination of Down syndrome pregnancies, yet a large percentage of mothers whose babies are identified as having Down syndrome using the former prenatal test decided to terminate their pregnancy. In Iceland, where the test is already available, the termination rate is now 100 percent. There have been 3,213 abortions carried out on grounds of disability since 2015 alone, 689 of these were Down syndrome cases. Surely this is evidence enough that if more mothers are able to determine risk-free if their child has the condition, the number of babies born with Down syndrome each year most likely will begin to decline. The fact that 230 of these terminations were carried out after 24 weeks, the usual cut-off point for an abortion in the case of a non-disabled baby —  a 271 percent increase since 1995 — demonstrates the lack of equality disabled people have even before birth.

Leading part of the anti-NIPT campaign is the actor, comedian and mother of a boy with Down syndrome, Sally Phillips (best known as Tilly in BBC’s Miranda). She created the documentary “A World without Down’s syndrome?” which aired on BB2 last year in the hopes of offering people a new stance on Down syndrome and disability in general. The program has been highly praised, particularly by the Down syndrome community. But it has also received some criticism, namely for, “glorifying” disability or evoking guilt from mothers who had already aborted a baby with Down syndrome. One critic said that Philipps’ take on Down syndrome was overly positive and unrepresentative given that her son was “high-functioning.” Yet, why should that be an issue? We should not be determining whether we abort a baby based on their so-called “functioning level.” Once we start deciding who we do and do not want in our society, we begin to enter very difficult territory.

This is also a common issue with people on the autism spectrum, which I myself am on. Many scientists are desperate to find a “cure” for the condition, best referred to as a”‘neurotype,” while many people who are actually on the spectrum — including me — are against this. The common argument against this is that autistic people are “high functioning” and therefore not “in need” of this unfeasible “cure.” Yet, how can we ever decide which disabilities need “curing” and why is our society so obsessed with “curing” or eradicating difference? The voices of people actually affected by these issues are constantly ignored. People with Down syndrome and their families should be consulted on the NIPT test, and, interestingly, they are overwhelmingly against it.

It seems people are all too eager to dismiss campaigners against NIPT once they reveal they have a personal connection to the issue. This may happen now when I say that my aunt, who passed away at the end of last year, also had Down syndrome. Yet why do people perceive our views on this issue to be biased by our own experiences of someone with Down syndrome? If anything, we speak with greater authority on the issue because we know exactly how fulfilling a life with Down syndrome can be, and how much joy they can bring to their relatives. We have witnessed it ourselves first-hand.

The imminent introduction of NIPT on the NHS shows we still take issue with difference in our society, or why would we be so opposed to bringing babies with Down syndrome into the world? We will never be fully accepting of disabled people in our society until we accept the birth of disabled children. As the American disability activist Celeste Adams so aptly quoted in her TED talk, “Don’t fix us, fix the system.”

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Thinkstock image by Tatiana Dyuvbanova