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Downright discrimination

New prenatal screening methods in the U.K. threaten babies with Down syndrome

A baby with Down syndrome in the NICU iStock.com/Matsuringo

Downright discrimination

Ever since free prenatal screening for Down syndrome began in Denmark in 2004, the number of babies with the condition has dropped, with only 18 born last year, according to a new report from the Danish Cytogenetic Central Registry. The Danish National Board of Health said 95 percent of parents who discover a chromosomal abnormality like Down syndrome in their unborn baby choose to abort the child. Other countries have similar stories: A 2017 report out of Iceland found parents aborted nearly 100 percent of babies with Down syndrome.

Last month, the U.K. government announced the widespread introduction of a new prenatal screening method to hospitals. Older, more invasive tests put patients at risk for miscarriage if not done early in a pregnancy. The new method uses a blood sample from women as soon as 10 weeks’ gestation. Supporters say the testing helps mothers make informed decisions about their pregnancies. But opponents say that—in combination with negative portrayals from healthcare providers and the lack of support for people with the condition—the tests will lead to further discrimination against babies with Down syndrome.

Already, 90 percent of U.K. parents who receive the diagnosis abort their babies. British hospitals that offer early testing report a further 30 percent decrease in the number of Down syndrome births.

“We seem to be intent on screening out a certain group of people simply based on a characteristic,” said Lynn Murray from the U.K. Down syndrome advocacy group Don’t Screen Us Out.

Doctors may not overtly pressure families into aborting their children, but Murray said medical staff often fail to give families the full picture of what life with Down syndrome looks like. Studies show people who have the diagnosis are overwhelmingly happy with their lives and their families love them. But doctors often only share information about medical complications with families.

“Because of ignorance, there would be a tendency to present the wrong picture,” Murray said. “There could at very best be a subtle pressure [to abort] because of the fact that there isn’t guidance to support the continuation of pregnancy.”

Murray has a 20-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. Rachel is her fourth and youngest child. Murray chose not to undergo prenatal screening, but she said her pressure-free situation was a best-case scenario.

U.K. law allows an abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation but extends the limit up to birth for babies with Down syndrome. One woman told Murray that even though she chose to keep her baby who had the diagnosis, a doctor reminded her it wasn’t too late to abort when she went to the hospital to deliver.

The focus on screening out the condition has kept people from receiving the medical support they need. The U.K. healthcare system could offer speech therapy to help those with Down syndrome live longer lives, since people with learning disabilities often die prematurely in hospitals in part because of an inability to communicate their pain.

“We are now looking at screening people before birth for a lot of different conditions, and we need to get this right,” Murray said. “Otherwise, we’ll think that nobody is fit to be born.”

Leah Hickman

Leah is a reporter for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Hillsdale College graduate. Leah resides in Cleveland, Ohio.



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Varenikje, I am so happy to read that! Last year when I was diagnosed with cancer, a dear friend and sister in the Lord gave me A Spectacle of Glory: God's Light Shining Through Me Every Day. It's been such an encouragement on my journey. They are short devotionals for each day that have encouraged me and helped me to see how suffering is transforming me to be more like Christ. 


CherylQuilts: I have been reading Joni Erickson Tada's books to residents of a nursing home that I work at and they find it inspirational and uplifting! 


This just breaks my heart to read the numbers of precious children that are aborted because of Down Syndrome. When I was a child, my grandmother's neighbor had a daughter with Down Syndrome. When we visited my grandparents, she was a joy and would play with us. We loved her and never realized she was in her thirties at the time. She lived a happy life, and her parents and everyone loved Maryann. We have friends whose youngest son has Down Syndrome, and he is functioning well today as an adult and works. While he is very quiet and reserved, Will is a kind young man. Oh that we would allow other Maryanns and Wills to live and be accepted! Where does screening and discrimination stop?