BBC Radio 4 Today programme – Ethical issues in prenatal diagnosis and screening

Listen again via the BBC Radio 4's Today programme archive

Listen again via the BBC Radio 4's Today programme archive

This brief post concerns a short section of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, broadcast on January 7th 2009. The clip itself is approximately 4.5 minutes long and features interviews with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the Autism Research Centre, and Joy Delhanty, professor of human genetics at University College London, who prospectively discuss the ethical issues involved in prenatal testing for autism. It was broadcast alongside the corresponding edition of the BBC News’ weekly column Scrubbing Up, in which leading clinicians and experts give their perspectives on various issues in health and bioethics.

As the corresponding article, entitled “Autism test ‘could hit maths skills’” suggests, a prenatal test for autism is not yet available. However, if and when it were, doctors would theoretically be able diagnose the condition in the unborn child, and provide the parents with the opportunity to terminate the pregnancy in the event of a positive result.  Thus the discussion that takes place in this clip is largely hypothetical and focuses on four main issues:

  • Firstly, as in the corresponding edition of Scrubbing Up, Prof. Baron-Cohen asks “what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism” should the test be used to prevent affected children being born?
  • The distinction between the use of the test for widespread prenatal screening, and its use by families with a history of autism as a prenatal diagnostic tool.
  • The social implications of the use of a prenatal autism test in screening (which Prof. Baron-Cohen refers to as akin to eugenics, in that it would involve removing from the population a trait that is socially disadvantageous though not necessarily medically so).
  • The specificity of the test, in that there are a wide range of symptoms encapsulated within the condition of autism, and these symptoms can be more or less severe. Which types of autism would/should the test target? And would/could the test provide information about the severity of the disease?

Overall, this short clip deals with a range of issues around prenatal screening and, although its focus is on a hypothetical test for autism, it could be used to introduce a more general discussion in this area. It is partcularly useful in that the distinction between the use of prenatal tests for screening or diagnostic purposes is established so clearly, such that the programme explicity separates the ethical issues involved in each of these uses. Given that it is supported by a complimentary Scrubbing Up article, this clip would be an excellent resource for teaching.

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