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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
Should only healthy babies be born?
By Kirsten Lass
BBC Radio Current Affairs

Scan technology is now advanced
Medical science has advanced to such a stage that we are within a few years of being able to detect more and more diseases and disabilities in the womb.

Already some women found to have babies with abnormalities are under pressure to terminate.

Is it right that we should strive to create a world increasingly free of disability and disease in this way?

Currently, tests for Down's Syndrome are offered to women believed to have a high risk of the genetic condition, and by 2004, the government has pledged that every pregnant woman will have the opportunity to have the test.

The vast majority of women choose to terminate a foetus when they know for sure their baby has Down's Syndrome.

You're talking about eradicating a whole section of the population - it's state sanctified eugenics
Bill Albert
But the Five Live Report has found at least some women are being pressurised to terminate.

And critics of the screening process say there is a presumption among some of the medical profession that women will terminate - a presumption that will extend to more and more abnormalities as scientific advance continues.

Professor Hilary Rose, a sociologist with the Open University, believes women often find themselves on a "conveyor belt" they can't get off, and are overwhelmed by a system that can assume they want to terminate if abnormalities are found.

"That doesn't seem to me to be a healthy way to run an antenatal service", she says.

Some women actually feel pressurised toward a decision to terminate even when the problem with their baby is correctable.

'Terminate your son'

Lynn and David were delighted when they found out Lynn was expecting their first child. But their joy didn't last long.

"Within two or three minutes, the radiographer who was doing the scan said, 'Ah, there's a bit of a problem, there's something wrong with your baby's bowel'," said Lynn.

Abnormalities can be picked up
The baby had exomphalos - a condition where the abdominal organs grow outside the body.

The couple was offered three choices - to do nothing, to have another test to see if there were further problems, or to terminate.

They were also told their baby could have corrective surgery after it was born.

But Lynn and David felt the hospital was pushing them towards just one option.

As Lynn remembers: "It was like 'Termination' - big capital letters. 'It's not worth it, just get rid of it now dear. And then you can try a bit later on for another baby'."

David agrees they "felt at every single stage [the hospital staff] thought the best option would be termination."

But they refused to terminate and Lynn gave birth to a boy. William's condition was serious and he needed several operations.

"Sometimes I felt selfish", Lynn explains, "and thought why have I done this, to make your child suffer like that and maybe it would have been better to have spared him this."

She cries as she thinks back to the tense times when they carried him into the operating theatre.

But their son is now a healthy, happy three-year-old.

David stresses they both feel they made the right decision.

"While you're going through that in the hospital, you think why the heck have we done this, we're making this little lad suffer," he said.

"But when you see him being cheeky and smiling at the nurses, we know we were spot on."

Some believe that as we offer the chance to terminate for more conditions, society is becoming increasingly intolerant towards babies who are born with abnormalities.

Nazi echoes

Bill Albert, from the Council of Disabled People, believes we need to "face up to what's going on and not say this is about choice, this is about elimination".

Eugenics is the attempt to create fine healthy children and that's everyone's ambition
John Harris
He says what is happening has echoes of eugenics - the idea developed over a century ago that we could create the perfect human race by encouraging people with desirable genes to have more children.

The Nazis took this to extremes and killed people they thought were imperfect.

"You're talking about eradicating a whole section of the population" says Mr Albert, "It's state sanctified eugenics".

Eugenics is a term that John Harris, a bioethicist at Manchester University is also prepared to use, but sees this as a laudable aim.

"Eugenics is the attempt to create fine healthy children and that's everyone's ambition."

He believes couples who choose to have babies even when there are problems are "misguided" and the more we can screen out disability, pain and suffering the better.

"We're not trying to do this through killing people or eliminating individuals, we're trying to do this by making choices about which people will exist in the future."

That's not a future sociologist Hilary Rose wants to be part of. She's worried we might end up terminating all foetuses that aren't perfect.

"We need badly to stand back and look at the whole picture", she says with some despair.

"After all, we don't have to take up everything science and technology offers us."

  • Five Live Report: The Terminators? is broadcast on Sunday 21 September at 1100 BST in the Julian Worricker programme, and in full at 1930 BST.

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