It is a “fallacy and a myth” to suggest that a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome leads automatically to abortion, the master of the Rotunda Hospital has said.
Professor Fergal Malone said his experience as a doctor showed it was "not a given" that parents will opt for a termination if their unborn child is to be born with a chromosomal abnormality such as Down syndrome.
The foetal DNA test has been available in Ireland for the last four years and can be administered as early as nine weeks as a blood test. The test can pick up 99.9 per cent of chromosomal abnormalities.
Prof Malone was responding to Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan who said he could not support the proposal to allow for abortion up to 12 weeks gestation as recommended by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment.
Mr O’Callaghan suggested it might lead to an increase in the number of parents opting to terminate pregnancies following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
Professor Malone said in his experience approximately half of parents who have such a diagnosis go on to choose termination but the other half do not.
It was incorrect too to suggest that the majority of these tests are being carried out to detect chromosomal abnormalities, he explained. Most are carried out to give parents advance warnings of other conditions and the tests can lead to better outcomes for children after they are born, Prof Malone said.
“There is very clear proof that prenatal diagnosis of babies with heart defects yields better outcomes and healthier babies than stumbling across the diagnosis after the baby is born,” he said.
At the Citizens' Assembly last year, Professor Peter McParland, the director of Foetal Maternal Medicine at the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin, said new non-invasive screening procedures are creating new ethical dilemmas.
He said no there had been no baby born with Down syndrome in Iceland in the last four years since the screening programme was brought in while in Denmark, which has a similar screening programme, only a handful of babies have been born with the condition.
Prof Malone said many factors went into the decision to abort a child with disabilities. They included social mores, religious views and services for disabled children when born.
It did not follow, he maintained, that Ireland would follow the lead of other countries in relation to Down syndrome if abortion is allowed up to 12 weeks.
Sinead Redmond of Parents for Choice said very few Irish woman have a scan before 12 weeks.
She said many members of Parents for Choice have children with Down syndrome and resent them “being used as political footballs”.
“They do not appreciate the implication that their children are not wanted and chosen children. Their children are very much wanted,” she added.
“If you want people to be in a position to choose to continue their pregnancies that have a diagnosis of Down syndrome, then provide the services they need. That is the key issue that comes up time and time again.”
Lynda Delmar, who has a six-year-old son with Down syndrome, described Mr O'Callaghan's remarks as "insulting".
“The presumption that somebody would choose to abort a child is awful. He is putting his own judgement on people. People are a lot more compassionate than he would give them credit for,” she said.
“Has he done anything in his life to campaign for access to services for children with disabilities?”
Mr O’Callaghan was unavailable for comment at time of publication.