In New Zealand certain forms of prenatal screening and testing have become a routine part of pregnancy care – it’s what everyone does! The effect of something becoming routine is that fewer questions are asked about it. Not only does it come to be seen as the responsible thing to do, it also becomes harder to refuse – ultimately, choice is undermined.
Thus some ethical commentators speak of prenatal screening as a ‘conveyor belt’ that couples find themselves on without thinking. Many couples are totally unaware of the full implications of having an ultrasound scan, approaching it as nothing more than a “fun” thing that gives you the chance to find out the sex of your baby and provides the first baby photo for the family album. However, along with the information that ultrasound and other tests provide about the genetic makeup of the embryo/fetus comes the responsibility – some say the burden – of using that information wisely and in a way that respects the dignity of human life.
It is true that in most cases prenatal screening highlights nothing of concern. On the positive side, the visual images of the face, hands, feet and heartbeat generated by an ultrasound scan assist us to envision the fetus as a “child”. Getting the first “photo” can be a wonderful bonding experience.
Yet, in the small number of cases where testing reveals that there could be something wrong, parents are mostly unprepared for the difficult decisions that follow. What would you do? What would you say to your son or daughter? In such cases, the vulnerability and grief experienced by couples leaves them susceptible to the opinions and expectations of the people closest to them and the society they live in.
It has been suggested by some commentators that one of the unwritten rules of the society we live in is that we should avoid giving birth to a child with a disability or severe illness. In the words of Judith McCoyd:
‘This means that women who have children with disabilities, especially those diagnosed prior to birth, are breaking the rules by giving birth to those children.’ Even in 1994 when prenatal testing was much less prevalent than it is now, the New Zealand Public Commission noted that, if the choice was available, parents usually opted for termination when it was known in early pregnancy that their child had a severe birth disorder.
Respect Life Sunday
This is a time for us all to think about pregnancy and the implications of prenatal testing. It presents us with the opportunity to reflect on how the gospel tradition shapes our beliefs about the dignity of unborn human life.
Our responsibilities go further, however. To be a follower of Christ is to be committed to showing love in action. To the extent that we are part of a society whose attitudes and values make it difficult for women to continue with a pregnancy because the baby has a birth disorder, then we are also complicit in people’s decisions and part of the reason why, for example, more than 90 percent of cases of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.
An awareness of the personal costs associated with having a child with a disability or chronic illness highlights the responsibility of the wider community to offer adequate resources. While there are many people offering practical support, sometimes with little or no government backing, sadly, too often, Catholic-Christians promote the sanctity of human life in ‘word’ but fail in their broader responsibility to support people with disabilities and their families so that they might live full and satisfying lives.
There is an infinite difference between parents who want a child only if it comes into the world satisfying specific criteria for quality or gender, and parents welcoming the child they beget in a spirit of humility and with unconditional love, which they understand as the primary characteristic of the parent-child bond.
(Margaret Somerville: Biotechnology and the Human Spirit.)