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TERMINATIONS OF PREGNANCIES FOR GENETIC REASONS

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Coping with severely malformed fetuses:

A small percentage of fetuses are unfortunately so severely malformed that they will die within a few minutes or hours of birth. Because of genetic defects, or some disturbance of the pregnancy process, some are without a functioning brain; others are missing vital organs. Today, there are no medical procedures that can repair such major defects in fetuses or newborn babies so that they can live longer than a few hours. With the advent of ultrasound diagnostic procedures, these fetuses are being detected part-way through pregnancy. 

Hospitals have handled such pregnancies in various ways:

bulletNormal delivery: The pregnancy is allowed to proceed normally. The woman goes into labor and delivers the baby - typically weighing 3,400 grams or 7 pounds after about 40 weeks of pregnancy. The newborn is generally given only comfort care. Nature takes its course. The newborn dies quickly because its genetic malformations give the child only a few hours life expectancy.
bulletGenetic termination: The woman is scheduled to come into the hospital when her pregnancy is at about the 35 week mark. i.e. about five weeks before a full-term baby would have been due. A medication like oxytocin or pitocin is given. This induces labor. She delivers the baby - typically weighing 2,550 grams or 5 pounds. Again, only comfort care is given as the baby dies.
bullet"Feticide": This is a pro-life term which refers to the intentional killing of the fetus. According to EWTN News, the genetically malformed fetus is injected with sodium chloride. 4 It dies, presumably due to heart failure. The dead fetus is later delivered. According to Pro-Life Alberta, the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons modified their regulations on 2000-JUN-9 to allow the use of sodium chloride on hopelessly malformed fetuses.

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Implications of genetic termination:

bulletFor the fetus:
bullet"A study done by the Oxford Radcliffe National Health Service Trust in Oxford, England, and published [during 1998-NOV]...in the British medical journal 'The Lancet,' looked at 33,000 pregnancies between 1991 and 1996. Researchers found 174 babies that were born healthy and normal after an ultrasound had suggested abnormalities." If a fetus which was diagnosed as fatally malformed turns out to be normal and is delivered at 35 weeks gestation, it will not be fully developed and might require specialist care as a premature baby. It would be at much higher risk of infant mortality than if labor had not been induced. If it lives, it would experience a much higher than normal of suffering from chronic problems. 
bulletIf the fetus has a normal brain, it will become aware of itself and its surroundings at about 26 weeks into pregnancy. Genetic termination will reduce its life from about 40 to about 35 weeks. This might save a severely malformed fetus five weeks of suffering in the womb.
bulletThe birth process will be less stressful to the fetus. Because it is much smaller and lighter, it will be able to pass more easily through the birth canal.
bulletAssuming that the ultrasound diagnosis is correct and that the newborn is severely malformed, it may die sooner after birth than if it was born after a normal delivery. Its period of suffering outside the womb might be shortened.
bulletFor the woman:
bulletSince the fetus has no chance of living more than a few hours, its death is inevitable shortly after delivery. A genetic termination will let the mother begin grieving the death of her baby 5 weeks earlier than if she had a normal delivery.
bulletSince the fetus weighs about 2 pounds lighter during a genetic termination than a normal full-term delivery, labor would probably be shorter and less painful.
bulletThe woman avoids the physical complications of the last five weeks of pregnancy.
bulletThe woman knows in advance when she will be going into the hospital to have the baby. She can plan for the event rather than have it occur at an unexpected time.

This essay continues below.

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Opposition to genetic terminations:

Many pro-life individuals and groups consider genetic terminations to be a form of abortion. They recognize that the fetus is disabled. They rarely mention that these procedures are only employed in cases where the fetus is so malformed that it has no possibility of living independently beyond a few hours or days after birth:

bulletU.S. representative Bob Barr (GA-7) wrote an essay: "Genetic termination: murder by another name." He stated that "...babies are being systematically killed because a doctor or a parent too busy to care thinks the child might have a disability.  If that isn't a textbook definition of hypocrisy, I don't know what is."
bulletMary-Lynn McPherson, coordinator of Canadian Nurses for Life refers to genetic terminations as a form of mercy killing -- a form of abortion. She objects to RNs being required to assist with abortions. She is quoted as saying: "For many practicing Christian, Jewish and Muslim nurses, abortion is not an acceptable option." 1
bulletHuman Life International Canada, referring to genetic termination, stated in a news release, "... we have evidence that the barbaric practice of infanticide and 'partial-birth' abortion exists in this country..." 3
bulletHuman Life International is reported by EWTN as saying: "special interest groups promote a procedure that is a weapon against every minority population...pro-choicers will defend any abortion -- no matter how needless, cruel, or morally bankrupt...4

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Legality of genetic terminations:

Many states in the U.S. and all jurisdictions Canada have laws that might apply to genetic terminations:

bulletHomicide legislation in some jurisdictions applies to situations in which a bodily injury to a dying person accelerates their death.  1 A fetus might be gravely deformed and might be expected to live for perhaps an hour, if it had been delivered normally after a full-term pregnancy. A court might decide that pregnancy induction injured to the fetus. Because it would be born prematurely, it might live for less than an hour. This acceleration of death might be considered a criminal act. 
bulletLaws in some areas of North America hold parents responsible for intentionally causing the death of a newborn through a deliberate act or lack of action. A doctor and mother may decide to shorten the period of suffering of a hopelessly malformed newborn by withholding food. This might be interpreted as a criminal act. 
bulletSome hospitals do not allow nurses and other medical staff to opt out of participating in genetic terminations, even though the employee has religious and moral objections to the procedure. The employer might be prosecutable under state or provincial human rights legislation.

To our knowledge, genetic termination has not yet been challenged in court.

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References:

  1. Marnie Ko, "Down the slope - the slope to infanticide: Nurses At Foothills Hospital Rebel Over The Horrifying Results Of Late- Term 'Genetic Terminations'," Alberta Report at: http://www.interlife.org/gene/foothills3.html 
  2. Bob Barr, "Genetic termination: murder by another name," at:  http://www.house.gov/barr/wc_071699.html 
  3. "Court muzzles 'Genetic Termination' reports," Focus on the Family, at: http://www.fotf.ca/PPOL/TFN/TFN_224.HTM 
  4. "Canadian physicians to vote on killing 'defective' unborn babies," EWTN Pro-family news, 2000-JUN-8

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 Home page > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Genetic topics > here

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Copyright 2000, 2002 & 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-APR-28
Latest update: 2004-MAR-7
Author: B.A. Robinson

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