Denmark's Kinder, Gentler System of Eugenics

A new pre-natal screening program in Denmark has halved the number of babies with Down's Syndrome. The success of the program, undeniably a form of eugenics, raises a number of questions about how far people should go with pre-natal screening - and what kinds of conditions merit termination of a pregnancy.

Many people, including the infamous bio-ethicist Peter Singer, would argue that there's a social benefit to knowing whether you're going to have a Down's Syndrome baby. The child will need lifelong care and supervision, which could be a drain on family (and the state). Presumably, having that information early in a pregnancy will allow the parents the option to terminate it and try for a child who will grow up to live autonomously. And indeed, researchers report in this week's British Medical Journal that the testing has clearly had this effect in Denmark, where the number of babies born with Down's Syndrome went down from 55 in 2000, to 31 in 2005, after the testing program was in place.

The Denmark program's main innovation was early, non-invasive testing for Down's Syndrome. If a pregnancy showed several symptoms of producing a Down's baby, the doctors would suggest a more invasive test that could determine beyond a doubt whether the baby would be born with the condition. Previously, the only tests available had been the invasive one and as a result fewer women opted to take the test. Even today, all Down's pre-natal testing in Denmark is opt-in for parents.

Let's say the idea of terminating a Down's pregnancy doesn't disturb you. But what about babies who will be born with holes in their hearts, a potential for cancer, or possible schizophrenia? Where does eugenics become genetic fascism? Given that this kind of pre-natal screening is aimed at helping parents make an informed decision about whether to terminate, what conditions should parents be allowed to screen for?

Impact of a New National Screening Policy for Down's Syndrome in Denmark [via British Medical Journal]