Prenatal genetic screening “may be inaccurate”

New genetic tests to screen unborn babies will not be 100% accurate and might worry parents into believing their child will be born with a disability when they are actually healthy, warns IVF expert and gadfly Lord Robert Winston. American experts have developed a blood test which they say could be used to screen foetuses routinely for over 3,000 conditions like muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. However, the researchers acknowledged the ability to predict the genetic code of a foetus at 18 weeks could lead to "many ethical questions" because it might lead to more abortions.

Some British experts have warned that the test -- still many years from clinical use -- may be more of a harm than a help because in many cases it would be difficult to predict how a mutation might affect children and how acute their disability might be. Others argued that any information parents can obtain to help them prepare for possible eventualities once the child is born should not be withheld. Lord Winston said:

"The biggest ethical issue might be that we are going to cause a great deal of worry unnecessarily to a great deal of women who are pregnant. I am uneasy about it because I think it is unlikely to be absolutely accurate and we may raise more concerns in parents than are justified.

"I am fundamentally uneasy about all screening tests. I think that most of the time we are diagnosing things that really are not there and screening like this is probably going to be something where we are going to harm more people than we can help. I am a bit sceptical that it is going to be of value."

Bioethicist John Harris, of the University of Manchester, said parents should have the right to know if their unborn child could have a genetic abnormality, provided they were given practical and accurate information about the likelihood of the problem occurring and its potential severity. He said: "I believe one should be in favour of would-be parents getting the maximum information about the child that they might be having, either to prepare for eventualities they may face or to take the decision, if it is early enough, not to continue with the pregnancy." ~ London Telegraph, Jun 7

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | genetic screening, genetic tests, prenatal screening, prenatal testing

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