Thirty years ago, my wife was 16 weeks pregnant with our third child. At a routine prenatal checkup, our doctor suddenly looked very concerned and said she couldn’t hear our baby’s heartbeat. We were devastated, fearing the worst as we reported to the hospital for an ultrasound exam.
Given the grave situation, a radiologist joined the ultrasound technician. Then he smiled after a minute, saying our baby had only been “hiding behind the placenta” and was alive and healthy. We were so relieved and grateful that we didn’t chide him for accidentally revealing that we were having a boy.
That emotional roller coaster helps me understand why many women were outraged after reading a January article in the New York Times, “Tests Predicting Rare Disorders in Fetuses Are Usually Wrong.” Such DNA screening or “noninvasive prenatal testing” (NIPT) can give “false positive” results from 80% to 93% of the time, depending on the genetic condition.
Medical experts criticized the article for not making a clear distinction between these “screening” tests and actual diagnoses. The screenings find only a risk of certain defects, prompting a need for more reliable tests. But the article suggests that doctors counseling their patients often don’t make that clear either.
A 2014 study found that as many as 6% of patients have an abortion based solely on the initial screening result. For its recent story, the Times interviewed 14 patients, and eight of them said they were never warned about false positives; five said their doctor treated the screening result as definitive.
Three geneticists cited similar concerns. One recounted a case in which the follow-up test showed the baby was healthy, but the woman had already ended her pregnancy. And some of the more precise tests pose their own risk of causing a miscarriage.
Parents’ fear of suffering for their child and years of special responsibilities for them helps drive these tragedies. But there are other pressures as well.
Writing in the journal First Things in 1996, maternal-fetal medicine expert Dr. Thomas Murphy Goodwin cited two such pressures. His high-risk obstetrics service in Los Angeles, the largest in the country, had received referrals for 15 years from doctors who thought continuing a pregnancy endangered their patients’ life or physical health. Women came to Dr. Goodwin after refusing their own doctors’ recommendation for an abortion. And he and his associates would bring mother and baby through the crisis alive.
Dr. Goodwin said these doctors’ recommendations were based not only on ignorance of modern medical advances but on two additional factors.
First, in a society where abortion is permitted for any reason at all, many doctors developed an ambivalent attitude toward unborn life that led them to recommend abortion for a wide variety of reasons.
Second, the law created its own one-sided pressure. A doctor who failed to warn a woman about conditions that could lead her to want an abortion could be sued later by the parents for a “wrongful birth” — or even by the born child for “wrongful life.” But a doctor persuading a woman to abort, whether the fetal defect turned out to be real or not, was in no legal danger. As Dr. Goodwin observed, “There is no ‘wrongful abortion.'”
The Supreme Court is considering whether to reverse a deadly line of court rulings creating an almost unlimited “right” to abortion. One of many positive results of reversal could be to counter these pressures and once again encourage doctors to treat mothers and their unborn sons and daughters as patients who deserve life-affirming health care.
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Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.