Number of babies born with Down syndrome has not decreased in Netherlands

Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment hears from Dutch experts

The number of babies born with Down syndrome has not decreased in the Netherlands with the introduction of prenatal screening, a Dutch professor of obstetrics has said.

Eva Pajkrt, professor of obstetrics at the University of Amsterdam, told the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment on Thursday that while the number of women going for prenatal screening had increased by about 40 per cent, there were 250 babies born with Down syndrome every year.

Since 2007 all pregnant women in the Netherlands may undergo prenatal screening, which can identify whether a baby is likely to have a specific birth defect.

Prof Pajkrt said the syndrome had “not decreased at all, it has remained stable”. The committee heard that of those women who do screen for the condition, 90 per cent have an abortion if the condition is found.


Committee member Independent Senator Ronan Mullen said, referring to Ireland, that those with Down syndrome “are more cherished here than in many other countries”.

Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick said there were 120 babies born with the syndrome in Ireland every year. “They’re lovable children,” the Louth TD said. “I’ve spoke to parents [of children with the syndrome] and not one of them would give them up.”


Prof Sjef Gevers, emeritus professor of health law at the University of Amsterdam, told the committee “choice of the woman remains at the centre” of the Netherlands’ abortion framework, while Ireland’s regime was legally “very restrictive”.

Terminating a pregnancy is a crime under the Dutch penal code. However, abortion will not be punished if carried out by a doctor in a hospital or abortion clinic with a licence in accordance with the country’s abortion Act, which came into force in 1984.

Such licences are granted by the Dutch minister of health to establishments that satisfy statutory requirements relating to the quality of treatment in terms of medical competence and facilities as well as psychological care.

Prof Gevers said the Dutch abortion Act was based on the view that women “who are in a situation of emergency due to unwanted pregnancy should receive help”.

“We consider the termination of unborn as such a serious act, that it is only acceptable if unavoidable because of that emergency,” he said.

“Abortion is not seen as a routine medical procedure but as one that may be carried out on request of the woman if her circumstances leave her no other alternative.”

Prof Pajkrt said, “I think we do have abortion on request, yes”, following questions from Mr Mullen.

“I’ve been doing this work for a long time and I’ve never come across a woman who made this decision lightly. It’s not like. ‘I’m going on a vacation... ’ It’s not a light decision, it’s really not,” she added.

‘Reflective’ period

Dutch law also requires a waiting or “reflective” period of five days between a woman’s first request for an abortion and the termination. Abortion clinics need a special licence to perform an abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy.

Girls aged 12-16 generally require parental consent for an abortion. However, this may not be needed “in case of reasonable arguments by the woman”.

Prof Pajkrt said the majority of teenagers will come with a parent when seeking an abortion but there are scenarios where “the life of the girl is in danger” if parents were to discover the pregnancy.

Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte said she found it shocking that girls of 12 could make the choice to have an abortion without the permission of a parent.

In 2015, women from a foreign country accounted for 13 per cent of about 30,000 abortions carried out in the Netherlands. Thirty-four of those women were from Ireland.

Since 2012, it is mandatory to provide sex education to all school-going children in the Netherlands from about the age of 10.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times