The morality of prenatal diagnosis

Matt C. Abbott
April 21, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Prenatal diagnosis (also known as prenatal genetic testing) procedures such as amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling (CVS), maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and ultrasonography in and of itself, is not evil. But it can be evil if the intention of undergoing such testing is to procure an abortion if the unborn child is determined to be "defective."

Catholic teaching provides the best argument on this matter. As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's document Donum Vitae (1987) explains:

"... [Prenatal diagnosis] permits, or makes it possible to anticipate earlier and more effectively, certain therapeutic, medical, or surgical procedures. Such diagnosis is permissible...if the methods employed safeguard the life and integrity of the embryo and the mother, without subjecting them to disproportionate risks. But this diagnosis is gravely opposed to the moral law when it is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion depending upon the results....

"In conclusion, any directive or program of the civil and health authorities or of scientific organizations which in any way were to favor a link between prenatal diagnosis and abortion, or which were to go as far as directly to induce expectant mothers to submit to prenatal diagnosis planned for the purpose of eliminating fetuses which are affected by malformations or which are carriers of hereditary illness, is to be condemned as a violation of the unborn child's right to life and as an abuse of the prior rights and duties of the spouses."

We have seen that, because of unscrupulous persons and a dubious if not morally corrupt justice system, lawsuits are filed against doctors for "wrongful birth" and even "wrongful life." As Thomas Murphy Goodwin, M.D., writing in the March 1996 issue of First Things, observed: "...There is a tremendous imbalance between the liability involved in not informing the mother of risks, compared to the liability of suggesting the alternative of abortion. All pregnant women, no matter what their personal convictions, are subject to the effects of this imbalance...."

Dr. Goodwin's assertion is an unfortunate reality within the medical community. Doctors who otherwise might be inclined to promote an alternative to abortion fear that women will effectively blame them if the child is born with a "defect," particularly if the pregnancy itself is deemed high-risk and there is an adverse prenatal diagnosis. The probable result, then, is a lawsuit. (Of course, true pro-lifers realize that each and every child is a gift from God, deserving to be welcomed in life and protected by law. Hence, they would not act in such a manner.)

Thankfully, there are pro-life resources for parents who receive an adverse prenatal diagnosis. One such resource is "is an online outreach to parents who have received a poor or difficult prenatal diagnosis. The family stories, articles, and links within this site are presented as a resource for those who may have been asked to choose between terminating a pregnancy or continuing on despite the diagnosis. The families faced the same decision and chose not to terminate. By sharing our experiences, we hope to offer encouragement to those who may be afraid to continue on."

Ultimately, prenatal diagnosis, like so many other technological advances, can be used for good or evil purposes. Sadly, in our present culture, it is largely a tool for the latter. But it needn't be. Perhaps one day, with enough prayer, love and sacrifice, such medical technology will be used only to glorify God.