Amid partisan wrangling over legislative solutions to the economic crisis, there was a rare moment of unanimity on Capitol Hill recently concerning the need to alleviate a much different, but equally serious, crisis.
Passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress in late September and signed into law by President Bush on October 10, the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act provides expectant mothers whose unborn children receive a diagnosis of Down Syndrome or other genetic condition with up-to-date information about the nature of the condition and connection with support services. Co-sponsored by Senators Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) and Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), the legislation also provides for the creation of a national registry of families willing to adopt children with pre- or post-natally diagnosed conditions.
This much-needed legislation has emerged at an auspicious time — in October, which is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and as Sarah Palin’s political ascendance has focused the nation’s attention on her youngest son, Trig, who has Down Syndrome. The new law also comes amid an epidemic of Down Syndrome abortions.
Down Syndrome, or trisomy 21, is a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome. It is named after John Langdon Down, the English physician who first described the condition in 1862. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, one in every 733 live births is a child with Down Syndrome (the proper syntax, because the condition does not define the child), making it the most commonly occurring genetic condition, representing approximately 5,000 births per year in the United States.
Sophisticated prenatal genetic testing can now detect Down Syndrome in an unborn child as early as the first trimester. Earlier screening has led to an abortion rate of up to 90 percent for children with Down Syndrome. That rate helps explain the marked decrease in the population of Americans with the condition. According to a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the number of Down Syndrome live births declined 7.8 percent between 1989 and 2001.
The number of children born with Down Syndrome could plummet even further if physicians begin to follow the advice of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which in 2007 recommended that all pregnant women, regardless of age, be offered screening for Down Syndrome. (At the moment, all pregnant women over the age 35, who are more likely to conceive children with the condition, are offered prenatal testing.)
Many doctors welcome universal screening. Dr. Nancy Greer, medical director of the March of Dimes, an organization that promotes abortion of unborn children with disabilities, told the New York Times that the new ACOG guidelines allow more time for women to “make decisions” about whether to continue their pregnancies.