Should we allow prenatal testing for autism?

Xavier Symons
23 Nov 2013
Reproduced with Permission

In a controversial move last week the West Australian Reproductive Technology Council authorised an IVF clinic to screen out potentially autistic embryos. Autism is a multi-factorial condition, so there is no genetic test at the moment. However, since boys are four to five times more like to develop autism, the clinic will screen out males and select a female embryo. It appears, from a report in the West Australian, that the family requesting the PGD already had two autistic boys.

However, screening does not guarantee that the daughter would not also have autism.

Is this eugenicist? Possibly, says autism expert Andrew Whitehouse, of the University of Western Australia. But it has to be done. In an article in The Conversation, he called for an urgent debate about the ethics of screening out autistic children. Autism is a disability and quality of life is remarkable better where it is absent, he argued.

He insisted that autistic people should be respected and cherished, but suggested that there was no pressing need for more of them:

"It is without question that a person's life would be improved if they were free from intellectual disability, if they had the facility to communicate more freely, and if they had the capacity to live independently.

"To want a person to live without disability does not diminish in any way our love for people in these circumstances, nor their irreplaceable importance in our lives. Only a minority of our community know the challenges (and joys) of raising a child with significant disability. It is just plain wrong for people who have never been in this position to judge the wants and desires of those who have."

Sooner or later a genetic test will be available. Society should be ready for the inevitable debate about autism and eugenics, he says.