Rebecca Taylor will be guest blogging here once a week for the next month. Rebecca is a Technologist in Molecular Biology, MB(ASCP) and a practicing Catholic. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years at her blog Mary Meets Dolly. This is the second installment.
Do you get that feeling? You know when you hear about a new prenatal test and you shake your head, let a little grumble escape from your mouth, and then you notice the sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach. Many pro-lifers get that feeling because they know that a new prenatal test performed even earlier means more innocent babies aborted. I normally don’t talk about something as mushy as feelings, but today, I want to talk about that feeling.
A few months ago scientists announced a new way to genetically test a fetus as early as 12 weeks. Unlike amniocentesis, or chorionic villus sampling (CVS) each with a risk of miscarriage, this new method finds fragments of the fetal DNA in the mother’s blood. This test is not the same as a serum test often called a quad-screen or AFP. This is a test that actually tests minute quantities of the fetus’ DNA in a maternal blood sample. So prenatal genetic testing is likely to go from invasive procedures like amniocentesis and CVS to a simple blood test with no risk to the life of the fetus. Instead of a shout of joy from the pro-life community, this news received the whispered grumble, the shaking of the head and the sickened stomach. Why? Because most pro-lifers view any prenatal test as a precursor to abortion.
Admit it. We all do it. We lump prenatal testing and abortion together. We assume that with one comes the other. Sometimes the line between the two is so blurred, we lay the blame for the killing of an unborn child on the testing. In a piece on prenatal testing at LifeNews.com, Kristan Hawkins, a pro-life advocate whose son Gunner has cystic fibrosis, wrote about how genetic testing is killing babies:
As I have written before, I have become deeply involved with the current healthcare reform debate arguing that the system desired by the President and Democratic Congressional leaders will lead to rationing of care and slower development of potential life-saving treatments for children like Gunner. Recently my research into this issue has led me down another path: pre-natal genetic testing….
One theme is apparent; unlike with cancer where we are “racing to a cure,” these scientists offer hope that we can eliminate diseases by terminating those with them. An AP article yesterday, on February 17th, headlined, “Testing curbs some genetic diseases.” Couldn’t the article title have been, “Testing snuffs out those with genetic diseases?”
I am not angry at the AP writer for the writing the story as I was excited for finally someone has admitted that genetic testing is killing little girls and boys like Gunner. [my emphasis]
I understand Ms. Hawkins’ anger and frustration. Having tested pregnant mothers and their partners for cystic fibrosis mutations, I am fully aware of how this information is being used. But I disagree that it is the “genetic testing [that] is killing little girls and boys like Gunner.” Genetic testing may be cited as the reason to kill a baby with a genetic disease, but the REAL killer is abortion on demand. Without legalized abortion, prenatal testing would be what it should be, a way to find out more about the life going in the womb, especially if something is going wrong. Without legalized abortion, the use of prenatal testing would be naturally limited to conditions that could benefit from some kind of prenatal intervention.
In fact the Catholic Church has no problem with prenatal testing, unless it is done with the intent to abort if the results are not what the parents want. Prenatal testing is only immoral when the parents are already planning to abort when the testing is acquired. I have a suspicion that this scenario happens less often than we think. After reading many heartbreaking accounts of women who have been pressured and harassed by medical professionals to abort their “genetically-defective” children, I suspect that most women go into prenatal testing because their doctor recommends it and then are bullied into abortion when the test results aren’t perfect.
The problem is abortion and a medical establishment that uses it as a “solution” to medical problems. Always has been. Abortion takes clinically useful information and makes it deadly.
Why do I feel compelled to make this distinction? Because I know that someday doctors will likely be able to treat genetic disease in utero. Possibly even with gene therapy. I envision a day where drugs that are currently being tested to reverse the cognitive symptoms of Down Syndrome are used in the womb to halt the effects of an extra chromosome 21. That cannot happen without an accurate prenatal genetic test If we have labeled that prenatal testing as immoral because of its association with abortion, we close down an avenue for healing.
Morally, we need to separate the prenatal testing from the abortion. We can not equate prenatal genetic testing with murder. If we do, we may lose valuable future opportunities to heal in the womb.
I do wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Hawkins’ assessment of the way eugenic abortion is portrayed. Aborting a child with a genetic disease DOES NOT cure the disease. It only gets rid of the people with it. That wouldn’t work with cancer, but somehow when it comes to life in the womb, death is described as a “cure.”
Now there are those pro-lifers who would to like to restrict access to prenatal testing of any kind because it can lead to abortion. I understand that as a practical means to protect life in an imperfect world where abortion on demand is a reality. I just want to make sure that in doing so, or thinking it should be so, that we lay the moral blame where it belongs, with the abortion, not with the testing itself. It is important to recognize that sickening feeling we get around prenatal testing is due to the abortion that may follow and not due to the actual testing. After all, we Catholics pray our Rosary outside abortion clinics, not outside our local genetics lab.
Rebecca writes at Mary Meets Dolly which is, literally, the meeting of the world of genetics and genetic engineering, represented by Dolly, “mother” of modern biotechnology, and the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of life, represented by Mary, mother of Christ and the Church. Rebecca started www.MaryMeetsDolly.com to help everyday Catholics better understand the science and ethics surrounding modern biotechnology in light of Catholic Church teaching.