A leading autism specialist has urged caution as scientists develop ways of testing for more conditions in unborn babies.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University warns that such tests could end in a repetition of the “history of eugenics” – the elimination of people with undesirable characteristics from society which was practised in Nazi Germany.
Writing in the BBC’s Scrubbing Up column, Prof Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, warns that eliminating one undesirable characteristic like autism will lead to wider losses.
He asks: “If [such a test] was used to ‘prevent’ autism, with doctors advising mothers to consider termination of the pregnancy if their baby tested ‘positive’, what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism?”
Autism is characterised by social and communication difficulties, and is also linked to mathematical ability.
If fewer autistic children were born, Prof Baron-Cohen asks, “would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians, for example?”
He adds: “Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.”
Pro-life groups have raised concerns that prenatal testing will increasingly encourage parents to test for less serious characteristics in their unborn children. There are fears that this could lead to a ‘designer baby’ culture, where children are viewed as commodities without inherent value, and a greater number of abortions taking place as a result.
Josephine Quintavalle, of campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, commented earlier this month: “We have to ask where all this is leading and we must not be afraid of confronting the word ‘eugenics’.”
Responding to new prenatal tests for a genetic predisposition to developing breast cancer, she added: “We need to consider what genetic defects we will screen for next. If a parent is told we can choose an embryo which will not develop asthma, then the likelihood is they will opt for that, or any other perceived defect they are offered the chance to screen for.”
In addition to such fears, Sunday Times journalist India Knight has warned that the development of more tests will mean that women will suffer under the pressure to produce ‘perfect’ babies.
She writes: “What interests me is the underlying suggestion of us living in a society, at some time not too far from the present, in which women start to feel that producing a ‘perfect’ embryo is the only option and that painful and risky prenatal screening (amniocentesis carries a 1%-2% risk of miscarriage) somehow becomes obligatory.
“It’s one thing feeling under pressure to be a certain weight, or to dress a certain way, or to have a pert behind, and quite another to feel that one has to put oneself through dangerous procedures in order to have perfect eggs.”