Iceland Under Fire Over Controversial Method Of Nearly Eradicating Down Syndrome Births

Patricia Ramirez

Iceland seems to be leading the world in the eradication of Down syndrome; on average, only one or two babies suffering from the condition are born in the nation of 330,000 each year. As Mayo Clinic reports, Down syndrome is caused by an abnormal cell division involving chromosome 21 resulting in extra genetic material, which in turn results in the characteristic features and developmental delays and issues associated with the genetic condition.

Cognitive impairments resulting from Down syndrome can range from mild to severe, and deadly physical anomalies are also often associated with the disease. Roughly half of all those who suffer from Down syndrome have serious health conditions, including potentially deadly congenital heart defects. The life expectancy of those afflicted with the syndrome is roughly 60 years, and many require specialized medical care for the entire duration of their lives.

Modern medical testing and screening procedures have drastically reduced the number of babies born with Down syndrome in developed nations. The condition is often apparent while the fetus is in utero, either via ultrasound, genetic testing or a combination of the two. Ultimately, no nation on the planet has come as close to eradicating Down syndrome as Iceland, but the county's method of doing so has many anti-abortion activists up in arms.

The test is referred to as the "Combination Test," and it considers factors such as blood test results, the pregnant woman's age and ultrasound images to determine whether or not a given fetus has a chromosomal abnormality such as Down syndrome.

Down syndrome is often not discovered until late in the 2nd trimester, which can pose a legal and ethical dilemma for some expectant mothers. However, Iceland allows for the termination of pregnancies after 16 weeks in cases of fetal deformity, including Down syndrome.

Only a couple of babies with Down syndrome are born during an average year in Iceland, and in many of those few instances it is because parents get incorrect genetic screening results. In the United States, roughly 6,000 Down syndrome babies are born annually.

"It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling," he said.

"And I don't think that heavy-handed genetic counseling is desirable. … You're having impact on decisions that are not medical, in a way. I don't think there's anything wrong with aspiring to have healthy children, but how far we should go in seeking those goals is a fairly complicated decision."

"This is your life — you have the right to choose how your life will look like."

"We don't look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication... preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder -- that's so black and white. Life isn't black and white. Life is grey."

[Featured Image by Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock]