What are some moral concerns raised by prenatal testing?

By Rev. Bro. Thomas Petri, O.P.


Prenatal health care has advanced significantly in the last few decades, especially as a result of the development of the ultrasound in the 1970s. For many obstetric physicians, prenatal testing is the sine qua non of their medical practice. Testing is accomplished through a variety of means. Some methods are invasive like an amniocentesis or a fetoscopy. Other methods are less so like an ultrasound or serum screening.

In 1987, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that prenatal testing “is permissible, with the consent of the parents after they have been adequately informed, if the methods employed safeguard the life and integrity of the embryo and the mother, without subjecting them to disproportionate risk.”[1] There are a number of positive benefits of prenatal testing. The testing may help to determine whether the child suffers from any number of conditions: Down Syndrome, spina bifida, and Trisomy 18, to name just a few.

This information can be very helpful and even medically therapeutic. A prenatal diagnosis may result in a changes in treatment and care during the pregnancy itself. It may necessitate a change in the mode of delivery when the time comes. Doctors may be able to perform therapeutic actions in the womb to bring benefit to the child. For example, a shunt might be inserted into the developing skull of a child suffering from spina bifida to ease pressure by draining the buildup of fluid.

Moreover, once a child has been diagnosed prenatally with a specific medical condition, a plan of medical treatments after his birth might be established. The parents, too, can benefit significantly. They are given the time and psychological space to prepare for the birth of a child who will require special attention with unique medical needs.

There are some moral concerns with prenatal testing and prenatal diagnosis, however. As with any medical procedure, its benefits must be weighed against its risks. The risk to the mother and to the baby must be considered in relation to the benefits of the knowledge one hopes to gain: how will one use the information that comes from a prenatal diagnosis?

Unfortunately, there are some serious moral issues surrounding prenatal diagnosis, or, rather, how clinicians and parents respond to a difficult diagnosis. The legalization of abortion in 1973 led to the development of the so-called “therapeutic abortion.” Clinicians often advise early prenatal testing so the “full range of options” might be available to parents, including both therapy and “termination.” Studies have shown that roughly nine out of ten children diagnosed prenatally with Down Syndrome, spina bifida, and other difficult conditions are aborted (although for some conditions the rate falls to an equally unacceptable six out of ten). [2] While, in theory, therapy is one stated benefit of prenatal diagnosis, the statistics are clear: abortion is the preferred “treatment” for a suffering child.

While the term “eugenics” is strong, there is no other word for the systematic practice or mindset that seeks to terminate persons with limitations (physical or otherwise). Pope John Paul II lamented that this eugenic mentality had passed into clinical practice. In his 1995 encyclical “On the Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae), he wrote that prenatal diagnosis is often “used with a eugenic intention which accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of children affected by various types of anomalies. Such an attitude is shameful and utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value of a human life only within the parameters of ‘normality’ and physical well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia as well.” [3]

The difficulties in raising children with special needs are not insignificant. Likewise, the psychological distress that comes with the knowledge that one’s child may not live long after her birth is real and can bring much suffering. But Christians believe that all life is a gift from the One who is the Lord of Life. We are not free to do with this gift what we please.

To terminate the life of one’s child to avoid cost and suffering is not only morally grave, but it is also against our human dignity. It is against the dignity of the child, but it is also against the dignity of the parents, who find life’s true purpose in parenthood. Since it is an action against the designs of creation and of love, selective abortion proves not to be therapeutic at all; it ultimately results in regret, shame, and guilt, even as the parents grieve the loss of a child.

Many parents turn to selective abortion because they may feel pressured by medical staff, friends, family, and a society which views limitation as degrading and inhumane. All the more reason, then, for Christians to rally to these parents during their difficult pregnancy, to buoy them up with lasting prayer, support, and assistance. More than that, the Gospel should permeate every aspect of a Christian’s life, whether he be a janitor, a doctor, or a politician. Christian doctors are obligated to practice medicine with right reason illumined by the Gospel.

A life of virtue requires us to respect every life from conception to natural death, regardless of that person’s ability to communicate, to be productive in society, or that person’s physical limitations. A Christian has a higher motive than this. Our Lord once said, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40). Who is the least among us if not a voiceless suffering child in the womb?

Rev. Bro. Thomas Petri, O.P., is a candidate for the S.T.D. in moral theology at the Catholic University of America. This article made available courtesy of the Catholic Exchange web site.


[1] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction on Respect for Human Life” (Donum Vitae), I, 2.

[2] See Caroline Mansfield, et al., “Termination rates after prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, spina bifida, anencephaly, and Turner and Klinefelter syndromes: a systematic literature review,” Prenatal Diagnosis 19 (1999): 808-812.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 63.