Australian mothers-to-be are increasingly choosing to terminate their pregnancy if their baby tests positive for Down syndrome.
Down syndrome terminations have increased dramatically since the early 1990s, with the latest data out of Western Australia showing that about 93 per cent of prenatal diagnoses in the state are being aborted.
That figure, if replicated nationwide, would put Australia in a similar range to countries like Iceland where the rate is close to 100 per cent and Denmark at 98 per cent. Nations with lower rates include the United States with 67 per cent and France with 77 per cent.
The ABC’s Lateline program last year reported that Australian abortions after positive Down syndrome tests were estimated at between 80 and 90 per cent.
Fewer than 270 babies are born with Down syndrome each year in Australia – one in 1100 babies.
Western Australian mother Emily McCain, 34, told The New Daily she was concerned misinformation was influencing women’s decisions to terminate Down syndrome pregnancies.
She said her own doctor had pressured her to abort her baby – now a healthy eight-year-old – and that, anecdotally, she is not the only one to have had this “upsetting” experience.
“Thirteen weeks into my pregnancy, tests showed a high chance that my child would have Down syndrome – one in 78. Then the amnio test confirmed a definite ‘yes’ that my baby girl would have Down syndrome,” Ms McCain said.
“The first thing the doctor said to me, straight after telling me my test results, was ‘Let’s book in a termination’.
“At that stage, I was halfway through my pregnancy, and my doctor was advising me to terminate the baby … I was pretty upset.
“Being told to terminate your baby by a doctor makes you doubt whether you’re making the right decision.”
Ms McCain said she was shocked at how Down syndrome was made out to be a “terrible thing” and that she received no information or referral support prior to the pregnancy.
“In all my scans, the baby was otherwise completely healthy. The Down syndrome didn’t scare me,” she said.
“The first time I held her and I looked into her eyes, I saw this perfect little baby. I didn’t feel any regret. I knew I’d made the right decision.
“Maybe it isn’t for everyone, I don’t look badly on people who choose to terminate, but I do worry people aren’t making fully informed decisions.”
University of Western Australia researcher Carol Bower, involved with the above study, told The New Daily she attributed the significant rise in Down syndrome terminations to the increased access to reliable screening tests.
Is there such thing as a ‘perfect child’?
University of Sydney bioethicist Dr Tereza Hendl said testing being more widely available had normalised the termination of Down syndrome pregnancies.
“Already fewer children with Down syndrome are being born and we need to ask whether this is a result of stigma associated with intellectual impairment and lack of social support for families with children with Down syndrome,” she said.
“There are serious ethical concerns. A woman who decides to have a child with Down syndrome can be stigmatised and labeled as a ‘burden on society’. In the future, families with children with Down syndrome could find it hard to find social support.
“The concept of a ‘perfect child’ is troubling. Who gets to define perfection? How far do we go? There is an important difference between prevention of life-threatening conditions and selection for a ‘perfect child’.”
In response to increasing termination rates, Dr Hendl said she would like to see better counselling procedures in place to ensure prospective parents are better informed about their options.