J Clin Pathol 56:268-270 doi:10.1136/jcp.56.4.268
  • Original article

Down’s syndrome screening is unethical: views of today’s research ethics committees

  1. T M Reynolds
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor T Reynolds, Clinical Chemistry Department, Queen’s Hospital, Belvedere Road, Burton on Trent, Staffordshire DE13 0RB, UK; 
  • Accepted 10 November 2002


Background: Screening for Down’s syndrome forms part of routine obstetric practice. Ethical considerations relating to genetic screening form a major part of the workload of research ethics committees. This study investigated the attitudes of research ethics committee members to several conditions varying in clinical severity and prognosis, including Down’s syndrome.

Methods: The members of 40 randomly chosen research ethics committees were surveyed. A simple questionnaire comprising 19 clinical scenarios based around four “clinical” conditions was designed to review conditions that were potentially embarrassing, affecting life span but not mental ability, premature death, and intellectual impairment with a risk of neonatal cardiac defects (Down’s syndrome). Screening tests with different degrees of effectiveness were described and the diagnostic test descriptions ranged from having no risk to an unaffected fetus to causing spontaneous abortion of two normal fetuses for each affected fetus identified. Replies were graded on a scale of 1 to 5.

Results: Seventy seven replies were received from 28 different research ethics committees. Screening was supported for treatment of a life threatening condition (95% in favour) but screening for conditions of a slight increase in premature death (14% in favour) or cosmetic features (10% in favour) were considered unethical. Views were ambiguous (49% in favour) about conditions involving significant shortening of lifespan. Down’s syndrome screening was considered more ethical when described as a serious condition (56% in favour) than when the clinical features were described (44% in favour). Once increased rates of spontaneous abortion on confirmatory testing were added, 79% (21% in favour) and 86% (14% in favour) stated that screening was unethical (for “serious” and “clinical features” descriptions, respectively).

Conclusions: Down’s syndrome screening raises ethical concerns about genetic testing in general that need to be dealt with before the introduction of any prenatal screening test.