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Terminations of pregnancies for genetic reasons:
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:
Normal delivery: The pregnancy is allowed to proceed
normally. The woman goes into labor and delivers the baby - typically
weighing 3,400 grams or 7½ 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 typically give the child only a few hours life expectancy.
Genetic 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 5½ pounds. Again, only comfort care is given
as the baby dies.
"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. 4It 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.
Implications of genetic termination:
For the fetus:
"A study done by the Oxford Radcliffe National Health
Service Trust in Oxford, England, and published [during
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
much higher than normal of suffering from chronic problems.
If 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.
The 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.
Assuming 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.
For the woman:
Since 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.
Since 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.
The woman avoids the physical complications of the last five
weeks of pregnancy.
The 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.
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
U.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."
Mary-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
Human 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..."
Human 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
Legality of genetic terminations:
Many states in the U.S. and all jurisdictions Canada have laws that might
apply to genetic terminations:
Homicide legislation in some jurisdictions applies to situations in which
a bodily injury to a dying person acceleratestheir death.
1A 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
Laws 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
Some 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
To our knowledge, genetic termination has not yet been challenged in court.