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Saturday, 11 March, 2000, 18:29 GMT
Gene tests urged for unborn babies
Pregnant woman
Over 95% of genetic tests on mothers-to-be are normal
Nearly all pregnant women should undergo genetic tests to see if the child they are carrying has a disorder, according to a government report.

The study by an expert panel to draw up national guidelines and standards for prenatal genetic testing has put forward the proposal as a means of pinpointing rare diseases at an early stage of pregnancy.


The reality is the reason for these tests is to destroy disabled children

Nuala Scarisbrick of the charity Life
It raises the prospect of genetic screening for most pregnant women with advice on how they can then have an abortion if the test provides evidence of a serious abnormality.

The draft guidelines by the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing (ACGT) have been submitted to health authorities across the country for consultation ahead of final standards being issued later this year.

Pregnant women with a family history of illness or an increased risk of abnormality, such as Down's Syndrome due to the age of the mother, should be automatically offered a test, according to the report.

But the study also suggests a more radical departure.

It says a large proportion, if not all, pregnant women could be tested to identify those whose unborn child is at higher risk of developing genetic disease.

Termination

It said: "An offer of screening the whole pregnant population or a large sub-group, which is collectively at a low risk, may be undertaken with the aim of identifying those at higher risk so that more specific tests may be offered.

"Where a potential abnormality is identified, there is a need for urgent detailed counselling about the options available, often when the pregnancy is fairly well advanced."

The document by the ACGT, which is now part of the government's Human Genetics Commission, underlines that women found to have an abnormal foetus should be provided with advice on an abortion within legal guidelines.

It said: "Those who undergo prenatal diagnosis have the wish to have a healthy child.

"Thus, when a foetus is found to have a genetic, chromosomal or structural abnormality, some may, when provided with information on the effects of the abnormality, may choose to seek a termination of the pregnancy."

The report found that the vast majority of genetic tests carried out so far showed normal results.

Importance of consent

Just 4.1% of more than 36,000 samples of fluid taken from the womb and tested between 1997 and 1998 provided an abnormal reading.

The study underlines the importance of consent from the mother and need for the procedures and their implications to be explained with clarity and support provided once the result is known.

A Department of Health spokeswoman emphasised the findings were in draft form.

But anti-abortion campaigners criticised the suggestion of large-scale testing, saying it amounted to a plan to filter out disabled children before they were born.

Nuala Scarisbrick, of charity Life, said: "The reality is the reason for these tests is to destroy disabled children.

"They look to root out Down's Syndrome or spina bifida and deny the rights of unborn child."

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06 Mar 00 | Health
Women 'scared of birth'
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