In Cana of Galilee

When are you having an amniocentesis?

This question to a 46-year old pregnant woman is so common it deserves some attention here. My response is quite naturally that I don’t do amniocentesis. And then the surprise reaction, “but isn’t it compulsory at your age?”

Amniocentesis is an invasive pre-natal diagnosis that holds a minimum risk of miscarriage (generally 1 out of 100 to 300, depending on the expertise of the doctor and the gestation period) and has a sole purpose – to detect genetic malformations in the baby, or to say it plainly, to check if the baby has Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome).

There are diseases diagnosed in babies while still in the maternal uterus that can be corrected, some by using very special intrauterine operations, others right at birth, if they have been correctly diagnosed. For that purpose, there are morphological ultrasound scans that are not invasive and hold no risk to the baby or the mother. But chromosomal diseases cannot be corrected. That’s why amniocentesis is unnecessary. Knowing that an unborn has Trisomy 21 is as unnecessary as knowing if it is a boy or a girl. In either case, you just cannot alter the facts. Could it be useful to know beforehand? Perhaps. I’m dying to know if my new baby will be a girl or a boy. But I wouldn’t run any risk, no matter how small, of losing my baby just to know. It wouldn’t even be ethically correct to do so. Why should I put my baby at risk to know in advance if he or she has Trisomy 21, even if the statistics tell me that at my age the chances are pretty high?

Unless of course I were to consider the possibility of killing my baby if he or she were confirmed to have Trisomy 21. So just to clarify the function of amniocentesis in our society: its purpose is to eliminate children with Trisomy 21 before birth. The statistics leave us in no doubt; 95% of unborn children diagnosed with Trisomy 21 are aborted. There are countries that are proud to say that they have “eliminated” the disease…

Many obstetricians (not mine, thank God) put the question of amniocentesis as practically compulsory. “It’s time to do an amniocentesis”, they say. As far as I know, some are quite resolute about it, putting it as a moral obligation of mothers over 35 and giving them the feeling that to refuse would be irresponsible. Of course the real fear of those obstetricians is that they may later be accused by mothers of not having detected the syndrome (yes, there are mothers with their babies in their arms who accuse the doctors of not having warned them of what was to come). The pamphlets that various medical care brands distribute around the time of the antenatal check-ups, showing the calendar of the baby’s monthly evolution etc. also present amniocentesis as compulsory: “Week 15. Time to do an amniocentesis. This test makes it possible to detect chromosomic defects in your baby so that you can make careful decisions about the future of your pregnancy”. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Why don’t they explain these things in plain words so that everyone can understand? “Week 15. If you’re thinking of killing your baby if he or she has Trisomy 21 or something similar, you can do an invasive test called amniocentesis”.

I know many Catholic mothers who would never abort their children and who did amniocentesis tests just because they were convinced that it was compulsory and necessary to correct any problems with their babies, simply by the way the health professionals explained the test to them.

I think that refusal to take this clearly biased test is a necessary act in our assertion as Christians. In defense of the dignity of unborn babies, who are subjected to unnecessary risks (no matter how small) in the place where they should be most protected of all. In defense of the dignity of children who have Trisomy 21, who are very special gifts that God entrusts to some parents. In defense of the dignity of life. Of all life.

No, I don’t do amniocentesis. And if the Lord wants to send me a child who has some kind of syndrome or disability, here we are to skipper the boat and to respond as always; “Here I am Lord!”

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