The British government is considering making a new screening test for Down syndrome available through the National Health Service. Although the Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing method (NIPT) is said to be more accurate and safer for women, there is concern that it will lead to more terminations.

Actress Sally Phillips, whose 11-year-old son, Olly, has Down’s, sparked a very public debate, saying, “As a parent of someone with Down’s syndrome I just find this arms race for new technologies terribly upsetting.” A couple of nights ago she hosted a programme on the BBC2 television channel called A World Without Down’s? (Scroll down for clips that play.)



Francis Phillips (no relation we presume), who will be familiar to many MercatorNet readers through her book reviews and has an adult daughter with Down’s, wrote this comment after the TV programme aired on Wednesday night:

Like Sally Phillips I have a child born with that extra chromosome. So you could say I had a vested interest in what she said. In effect, the programme kept returning to the question, which Sally reflected on several times: “Do you want a world without Olly?” (her own mischievous 12-year-old son) – or in my own case, “Can I conceive of a world without Cecilia?”

The answer in both cases is, “Of course not.” But it is the question that the experts, the doctors, nurses and other professionals who “counsel” pregnant women whose ante-natal test for Down’s has come back positive, never raise. For them it is simply an abstract matter of “disability – possibly severe”, “a heavy burden”, a “woman’s choice”, never a discussion of a living human being, a person with a name, who has the same longing to be loved as the rest of us.

One of my sons, who also watched the programme, phoned me afterwards and pointed out that when people talk of “normal” babies instead of disabled ones, they also never say to the mother (fathers were not in evidence last night), “By the way, please consider that a normal child can also bring a lot of grief; they may become a drug addict, an alcoholic, or be in and out of prison, or become disabled through disease or a car crash and so on.”

In other words, it is futile to predict what the future will hold for the child you are carrying, or how you will respond when they are born, so the most natural thing (rather than the invasive and eugenic response) is to let nature take its course. The pressures of modern society won’t let us do this. Ignorance is not necessarily bliss, but it can sometimes trigger a more humane response, as in the mother who once said to me, “If I had known my little boy had Down’s before he was born, I would probably have aborted him – but now (gazing at her cheeky 2-year-old in a pair of too-large jeans) it would be unthinkable.”

It’s great to see a celebrity standing up for a group of people whom so many medical people would prefer to eliminate before birth. People like Miss Phillips can do more to influence public opinion in one night than the rest of us could do in years. But both efforts are necessary.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet