Campaigners have applauded David Cameron’s statement that new screening techniques must be introduced in “the right way” to confront the “ethical issues” around testing the unborn for Down’s syndrome.
A new screening technique has been proposed which would involve less risk of miscarriage – saving perhaps 25 unborn lives per year – but would also mean many more cases of Down’s syndrome would be diagnosed. Campaigners say it could lead to an extra 92 abortions per year, given how many unborn children with Down’s syndrome are already aborted.
Currently, nine in 10 mothers who are told they are expecting a baby with Down’s syndrome choose an abortion. Down’s syndrome accounts for most of the abortions for disability – which stood at 3,100 in 2014, compared with 2,300 in 2013.
Campaigners argue that the new technique should be delayed pending a full review. They say the Government needs to make sure any reforms are compatible with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
One possibility is that the new screening could be accompanied by the option of counselling – and that, given social expectations, it may be most impartial if it comes from parents of children with Down’s syndrome. The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, must decide whether and how the new technique will be introduced.
The Don’t Screen Us Out campaign, which has raised concerns about the proposed technique, welcomed the prime minister’s remarks. A spokeswoman told the Catholic Herald: “This is a great victory. The UK National Screening Committee did not consider these matters necessary in the past.
“We have to trust that the prime minister means what he says about transparency and we will be monitoring activity to try to ensure that something more positive ensues from antenatal testing systems.”
The issue was raised by Conservative MP Nigel Evans at prime minister’s questions. Evans asked whether the Prime Minister would meet him and members of the East Lancashire Down’s Syndrome Support Group “so that we can look at ways of protecting those with Down’s syndrome and ensuring that they will not be simply screened out”.
Cameron said it was a “very important issue” and that he had received a visit from a local group of parents of children with Down’s syndrome. The prime minister said he would take the matter up with the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
He went on: “There are moral and ethical issues that need to be considered in these cases, but on the other hand we also have to respect the view that women want to have screening and testing about the health of their children, and we should be in favour of maximum transparency, on the basis that this is optional rather than mandatory, but it is part of routine care.
“So the Health Secretary is going to have to find a way through this, but, above all, we must make sure we go about it in the right way.”
Read Dennis Sewell’s Catholic Herald cover story on the Government’s life-and-death decision on Down’s syndrome babies.