Prenatal screening for autism- Ethics

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David Cox, a research fellow of neuropsychiatric disorders at Cambridge University has penned an interesting blog post regarding the ethics of prenatal screening for autism.

Autism is thought to be genetic and therefore hereditary, ground breaking work of late has identified certain genes which trigger neurological pathways in the brain at a specific time in an embryos development which could diagnose the onset of autism very early.

But Autism cannot be solely genetic. As Mr Cox explains identical twins can differe in diagnosis with one having autism and the other being neurotypical.

As with the test itself, would it be similar to that for Downs Syndrome which occurs at between 8 and 14 weeks gestation, the test for autism which seems to be likely to be developed in the very near future would test the embryos blood for certain proteins.

Mr Cox writes:

The lack of a concrete theory for autism can hamper the process of diagnosis, because the condition shares a number of overlapping symptoms with other autism spectrum disorders. However, over the past decade, the entire field of neuropsychiatric disorders has undergone something of a revolution with the growing realisation that they are not only conditions of the brain but of the entire body, raising the possibility of detecting them in the blood.”

Simon Baron Cohen, a Doctor and lead author of many research papers into autism and ASD at the University of Cambridge comments:

“The best case use of a prenatal test at the moment would be if you could say to a parent, your child has got an 80% likelihood of autism and so once the baby’s born, we would like to keep a close eye on that child in case they need extra support like speech therapy or social skills training or some sort of behavioural approach,”

“That would mean that there were no potential side effects and you might be able to intervene at a much younger age. So from an ethical point of view, if there was a screening test, using it for early intervention via a psychological approach would be quite risk-free and could carry a lot of benefit.”

If such a test were to be developed fully, how ethical would it be?

The full blog post can be found here.  We welcome your comments on this issue below.




  1. James Arjuna May 7, 2014
  2. Nevenka May 7, 2014
    • Shân Ellis May 7, 2014