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Due Date: Why I said no to prenatal screening tests

Jenn HardyWebsite

[This Magazine contributor Jenn Hardy is pregnant and due in a few weeks. In this Due Date series, we’re running some of her thoughts on pregnancy, health, and her experience trying to de-medicalize her childbirth.]

nurse with syringeCongratulations! You’re pregnant! First thing’s first: would you consider an abortion?

If your pregnancy was planned or the surprise was a happy surprise, it may seem like a silly question. But more and more new parents are being presented with this option when they are asked if they want to have prenatal screening tests like Amniocentesis or Chorionic Villus Sampling. Based on the results of those tests, terminating the pregnancy can become something that people consider.

To be clear, this is not an argument against abortion rights: women’s sovereignty over their bodies is not in question. What I do question is making invasive procedures routine, especially when the results they produce are not definitive. And the tests also pose difficult moral questions: if the potential for abnormality is present, is that a reason to terminate a pregnancy? People obviously make their own choices for their own reasons, and I can’t stand in judgment of that. What I can tell you is why I decided that these tests were not for me.

Am I being dramatic by calling these tests invasive? Not at all. For an Amnio, done around week 15, a large needle is inserted into the amniotic sac after it passes though the woman’s abdomen and uterus. About 20 mls of fluid is extracted and tested for various disease markers and other potential abnormalities. Can this cause harm to the fetus? You bet. Can it cause a miscarriage? Yes, ma’am.

A test used mainly to screen for Down syndrome (as well as Edwards syndrome, Turner syndrome and neural tube defects like spina bifida) Amnio is standard for women over 35, as the chances of giving birth to a baby with a chromosomal abnormality greatly increase with age.

According to the The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, at the age of 27, my chances of giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome are approximately 1 in 1,111. A woman aged 42 has a 1-in-64 chance.

Author and midwife Ina May Gaskin says in her Guide to Childbirth, the reason 35 was chosen as the recommended age is  “…at this age the likelihood of having a baby with a chromosome condition is about the same or greater than the risk the test will injure the fetus or cause a miscarriage.”

Depending on whether you choose to pay for it privately ($375–$900 at one Montreal clinic) or get the free test at the hospital, you will wait between 48 hours and five weeks for results. Probably a very nerve-wrecking wait.

After a CVS, done earlier in pregnancy than Amnio (in the first trimester), you may discover that your baby could be born with Down syndrome. Either you consider this is a reason to terminate the pregnancy, or you spend a very anxious few months wondering and worrying about your baby’s health. Though maybe for some, being armed with this knowledge would be a way to mentally prepare and plan for a baby who was not born “perfect.”

At our first visit with my OBGYN, we were presented with a pamphlet for a private clinic which offers prenatal screening tests. We didn’t open the pamphlet.

I was surprised when a few friends and some family members seemed to think it was careless of us not to do go in for screening. If the test is available, why on Earth would we choose not to take it? Did we need to borrow some money?

Amnio was the first of a long list of medical interventions we would choose to bypass. Just because certain technology is available doesn’t mean we need to make use of it. I am at such a low risk for delivering a baby with a chromosomal abnormality that we felt the risks outweighed the benefits. Secondly, after a very brief discussion with my partner, we knew we would carry this baby to term and love her regardless.

We decided we would enjoy this pregnancy, assume the best, and hope she is born healthy and happy. Just like our parents did.

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