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Fetal Testing Could Intensify Abortion Wars

Publication Date: 
November 01, 2012
Source: 
Live Science
Author: 
Stephanie Pappas

Professor Hank Greely spoke with LivesScience's Stephanie Pappas about whether new warnings on how noninvasive genetic tests for fetuses are becoming more and more common will stir the abortion wars. 

Genetic testing is increasingly able to tell parents more about their fetuses with less risk than ever before. But without better regulation, these tests could become the target of anti-abortion groups, a health-law expert says.

Writing this week in the journal Nature, Jaime King of the University of California Hastings College of Law warns that early, noninvasive genetic tests for fetuses are becoming increasingly common — but regulation of these tests isn't keeping up. So far, these noninvasive prenatal tests (NIPTs) are offered for a limited range of genetic diseases under a doctor's supervision, King said. That could soon change.

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"It's highly likely that this will get involved in the abortion wars," said Hank Greely, a Stanford University law professor who was not involved in King's editorial but who specializes in the legal implications of new biomedical technology.

One of the first issues that will likely catch fire, Greely told LiveScience, is in early testing for the sex of the fetus, which is the "easiest thing to test for" using maternal blood. Restrictions on sex-selective abortions are relatively easy to pass, King said, because most people agree that abortions solely based on sex are a bad thing. On the other hand, she said, these laws open up the avenue of asking women why they're choosing abortion, a new area that could lead to more laws differentiating "good" from "bad" abortions.

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The prenatal testing wars may also end up echoing the recent contraception wars, which present the question of who pays, Greely said. States have some leeway in determining what Medicaid will pay for, and it's possible that conservative states will see noninvasive prenatal testing as a gateway to more abortions and so refuse to fund them through Medicaid. Because Medicaid pays for 40 percent of U.S. births, that refusal could have huge repercussions. Women with money or good insurance could afford the tests; poor women and women without good insurance could not.

"I think we need to start paying attention to this issue now," Greely said. "It's not yet at the explosive point, but that's coming soon."