Antenatal Screening

Attitudes to disability and termination

Most parents we talked to hoped that screening would reassure them their baby was fine. At the same time, they knew the main purpose of antenatal screening was to discover whether the unborn baby had a condition such as Down's syndrome, spina bifida or a heart problem.

This meant most of them had done some thinking about what they would do if they found out their baby did have such a condition. Did they feel able to cope with a child with disabilities or special health needs? Or would they opt to end the pregnancy by having a termination?

Attitudes were strongly affected in some cases by people's religious beliefs and their concerns about society's pressure towards 'perfection' (see also 'Reasons for not having some or all antenatal screening').

Several people interviewed had had previous experience or contact with people with particular disabilities, especially Down's syndrome, which had influenced their approach to screening and termination. Sometimes it made people feel more certain they would not want to continue with the pregnancy.

One woman said she would not want to see another child go through the same thing as her cousin, and knew how difficult it had been for her aunt. Another said she would be worried about the pressure it would place on the relationship with her partner.

An older mother felt strongly she would have a termination; she was worried about the longer-term consequences of having a child with disabilities, particularly when he or she became an adult. (See also 'Special reasons for wanting antenatal screening' for the views of people with experience of disability in their immediate family).

Other people's previous experience of family or friends with disabilities had not made them feel they would want to end an affected pregnancy, but they still wanted to find out to prepare themselves. Those without previous contact with people with disabilities had equally diverse views.

It is sometimes suggested that people should only have screening if they are prepared to consider a termination, but people's views differ. Some people had been advised by health professionals to think about this carefully. A couple who decided to keep a baby with Down's syndrome felt this had not been handled well in their case.

A common alternative view amongst people who wanted screening but did not want a termination was that knowing in advance meant you could prepare, emotionally and practically, for the birth of a baby with special needs. One woman was advised to think in these terms by a doctor in America. Another woman felt screening should be available, not only because preparation was useful but also because you cannot predict how you would actually feel when faced with the reality.

The condition which people thought about most often was Down's syndrome. A few had also considered congenital heart problems, and neural tube problems such as spina bifida. Not surprisingly, there was little discussion of other rare conditions that can be detected by antenatal screening, such as Edwards', Patau's or Turner's syndromes.

One woman who was waiting for her blood test results for sickle cell disease mentioned the impact of having a friend whose family was affected by the condition.

This section concentrates on the views of people who in the end did not have to decide whether to continue or terminate their pregnancy. For the stories of people who did find their baby had a particular condition and how they made their decisions, please go to the sections - 'Having further tests and waiting for results', 'Deciding whether to have further diagnostic tests', 'Deciding to continue with the pregnancy' and 'Deciding to end the pregnancy'.

Separate websites on 'Ending a pregnancy for fetal abnormality' and 'Screening for sickle cell and beta thalassaemia and other haemoglobin variants' are also available. Here you will find more parents talking about their attitudes to disability, long  term conditions and termination.

See also 'Discussing screening choices with your partner.'

Last reviewed July 2017.

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