A blood test which reveals the sex of a baby after nine weeks should be banned for routine use because it promotes sex-selective abortion, a Government-backed think tank has said.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has warned that unscrupulous private clinics are offering non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) to parents who only want to find out whether or not they are having a boy.
It comes amid fears some doctors are unlawfully performing abortions purely on the basis of sex.
NIPT uses a blood sample taken from the pregnant woman and is seen as a major breakthrough in prenatal screening for a range of serious conditions because it negates the risk of miscarriage caused by conventional invasive tests.
From next year, the NHS will offer the test to expectant mothers to screen for Down’s, Patau’s and Edwards’ syndromes if doctors already fear their baby has a higher than average risk.
The test can also predict the sex of the baby, however, and the Nuffield Council says private doctors are selling it to couples without asking them to demonstrate they are at risk from a serious medical condition.
Professor Tom Shakespeare, chair of the body’s working group on NIPT, said: “We strongly believe there should be a ban on its use to find out the sex of the fetus, as this could lead to sex-selective abortions.”
Sex selection is not a lawful grounds for abortion in the UK, however prosecutors have been accused of leaving the door “wide open” to the practice after blocking attempts to bring charges against doctors caught agreeing terminations based on the sex of unborn baby girls.
Pro-life campaigners brought a private prosecution against two doctors, Prabha Sivaraman and Palaniappan Rajmohan, after they were exposed by the Daily Telegraph in 2012, however the Crown Prosecution Service subsequently used its powers to quash the case.
As well as a ban on the use of NIPT for determining sex, the Nuffield Council is also demanding a moratorium on using the test to map out a baby’s whole genetic blueprint.
“We support the introduction of this test for Down’s syndrome on the NHS next year, so long as it is accompanied by good balanced information and support,” said Professor Shakespeare.
“But, if the test is used without limits for other kinds of genetic conditions and traits, it could lead to more anxiety, more invasive diagnostic tests, and could change what we think of as a healthy or normal baby.”
He said NIPT should only be generally used where there is a risk of significant medical conditions that would affect a baby at birth or in childhood.
Today’s report says that many clinics which offer genome sequencing are not able to properly explain the significance of the information they diagnose
Dr Louise Bryant, another member of the council’s working group, said information given in private clinics was often “unsubstantiated, inaccurate or misleading, and sometimes uses emotive language”.
But the report was criticised by Genetic Alliance UK, a charity for patients affected by genetic disorders, which described it as “poor quality”.
The group believes restricting the availability of NIPT would “reduce and delay access to information which could inform reproductive choice”.
A spokesman said parents should have the right to screen not just for neo-natal conditions and those which occur in early childhood, but also for early onset dementia and neuromuscular condition such as Parkinson’s and Muscular Sclerosis.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service also rejected the report, which it said was “permeated by a mistrust of women and the reproductive choices they make”.
Source: The Telegraph