Blood Tests During Pregnancy Raise Abortion Fears

Last month’s announcement that a simple blood test can accurately determine a baby’s sex as early as seven weeks into pregnancy serves as another reminder that genetic testing and reproductive medicine is evolving at a head-spinning pace. But, there is concern that the accessibility and ease of these genetic tests will be used for sex-selective abortions. In light of these medical advances, America should brace itself for significant debate over the ethics of these tests and where their use falls on the spectrum of abortion rights.  

Staunch abortion rights advocates believe that barring this practice in the U.S. (as it is in China, India, and now Arizona) is a direct assault on Roe v. Wade and another roadblock preventing a woman’s “right to choose.”

This new age of reproductive medicine is uncharted and largely unregulated territory. Genetic testing to detect a hereditary condition or abnormality in a child should be seen as progress. The new blood test was designed for early detection of sex-linked disorders. If the fetus is determined by the blood test to be of the sex that is at risk for a genetically pre-disposed condition (as determined by genetic testing of the parents), more invasive and risk–borne testing would be done. If not, then there would be no need to perform additional tests. Today, such testing would be conducted irrespective of the sex of the child through amniocentesis, which carries a distinct risk of miscarriage and complications.

The fear, of course, is that some women would seek the termination of an otherwise healthy pregnancy because they are carrying a child of an “undesirable” sex. Opponents of sex-selection point to China’s deepening demographic crisis which they fear could be replicated in the U.S. Although gender selection was outlawed in China in 1994, today the country’s gender ratio is 120 boys for every 100 girls. All told, some 160 million women are considered “missing” from China and pockets of East and South Asia. If current population trends persist, this gender imbalance will continue to fuel a demand for prostitution (forced or otherwise), imported brides, and human trafficking.  

The quandary is how to prevent such an outcome without limiting the right of a woman to choose. This is exemplified by Arizona’s controversial law banning abortion because of sex or race. 

Will Arizona-type statutes proliferate? Is abortion for the purpose of sex-selection perhaps the stop where some in the abortion rights movement get off the bus? It may be that despite moral repugnance of the idea of sex-selection abortions, the slippery slope of restriction of “choice” will prove too much to overcome. The irony could be that the failure to limit such abortions could lead to a significant decline of women in the population and thereby, perhaps, a fatal blow to the feminist movement.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Danielle Schlanger

Graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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