Possible Pre-Natal Screening Test for Autism Sparks Eugenics Debate in UK

Tue Jan 20, 2009 - 12:15 pm EST

By Hilary White

LONDON, January 20, 2009 ( – The announcement of a possible pre-natal test for autism has sparked a controversy in the UK over whether such tests are a revival of the eugenics policies of the early 20th century.

Research was published last week that showed a connection between high levels of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women and incidents of the births of children with autistic traits. The study by Cambridge University’s autism research centre followed 235 children from birth to age eight. The research presents the possibility of using amniocentesis testing to “screen” unborn children for autism.

The research has opened the debate in the UK on the ethics of using such a test as a means to “search and destroy” autistic children in a way that is similar to that used for children suspected of having Down syndrome.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the research team, told the Guardian, “We should start debating this. There is a test for Down’s syndrome and that is legal and parents exercise their right to choose termination, but autism is often linked with talent. It is a different kind of condition.”

In a column on the BBC website, Professor Baron-Cohen wrote, “Assuming such a test is developed, we would be wise to think ahead as to how such a test would be used. If it 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? Would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians, for example?

“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.”

But pro-life advocates and parents of autistic children say that the whole idea of pre-natal “screening” is a matter of eugenics and that no child should be killed on the basis of a disability, whether or not they may become a great mathematician.

John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said that the BBC’s headline, “Autism test could hit maths skills,” is a “chilling reminder of modern Britain – in which countless human beings are killed as though they’re rubbish, simply because they’re disabled, and people in the media worry about the possible loss of maths skills.”

“Bernadette,” a British pro-life advocate and mother of a school-age child with autism, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told, “I didn’t think this day would come so soon. I deliberately avoided all pre-natal testing as I could see this day coming. I wanted my children to know that they were wanted, no matter what. But I didn’t think I’d be explaining this to them so young.”

Bernadette added, “My son is a great pro-life campaigner in his high school. Little by little, he’s winning a few recruits here and there. He’s autistic. What an advert for pro-life. What a witness to Love.”

Read related coverage:

Earlier Screening for Down’s Syndrome May Fuel Eugenic Program Against Disabled

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