What are the ethical concerns with noninvasive prenatal testing?

June 8, 2021

“At around twelve weeks, we’ll do a blood test to screen for any chromosomal abnormalities, and you’ll be able to find out the sex if you choose to do so.” This is now a routine statement, a version of which can be heard around the world in consultations between pregnant women and their obstetric care providers. When a woman goes to the clinic for an early pregnancy check-up, she will most likely be offered noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT), sometimes called cell-free DNA (cfDNA) screening. 

For many women, the opportunity to find out the sex of their preborn child earlier than the ultrasound anatomy scan is reason enough to have the screening. But what exactly does NIPT screen for? And why are some ethicists concerned about it?

What does NIPT do? 

Noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) analyzes DNA in a pregnant woman’s blood to screen for chromosomal disorders caused by the presence of an extra or missing copy of a chromosome. NIPT primarily looks for Down syndrome (trisomy 21), trisomy 18, trisomy 13, and extra or missing copies of the X and Y chromosomes. The testing is considered noninvasive because the blood is drawn only from the pregnant woman, unlike diagnostic testing such as amniocentesis, which involves inserting a needle into the womb to collect a sample of amniotic fluid, a procedure which carries a risk of miscarriage. 

NIPT can give both false positives and false negatives, and one study revealed a 10% rate of false positivity. Because it is a screening test, any positive result requires invasive diagnostic testing like amniocentesis to confirm the result. 

While NIPT is a relatively new testing method, it is being used at rapidly increasing rates. While it was previously covered only for those of advanced maternal age, more insurance companies are now covering it for all women. But there are some concerns.

Ethical concerns 

The ethical problems that arise from this kind of screening are extensive. Some ethicists are concerned that the growing prevalence of NIPT will lead to an increase in abortions following a screening that reveals an increased risk for Down syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities. A study published in 2020 found that the growth of prenatal screening in Europe has reduced the number of babies being born per year with Down syndrome by an average of 54%, and that study was conducted before many European countries offered NIPT. The screening and abortion rates in Iceland have led to only one or two babies with Down syndrome being born each year on average (the population of Iceland is 330,000).  

A reduction in the number of people born with these conditions could directly affect the care and research available for those who are living with such conditions, as well as the possibility for increased discrimination. NIPT could also lead to sex-selective abortions, since the sex can be revealed within the first trimester when abortion is more readily available.1Tom Shakespeare et al., “Non-invasive prenatal testing: ethical issues,” Nuffield Council on Bioethics, March 2017, https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/wp-content/uploads/NIPT-ethical-issues-full-report.pdf.

Some ethicists are also concerned that NIPT will eventually be used to screen for more conditions, including adult onset conditions or carrier status, meaning it could give some indication of issues that might affect the preborn child later in life or be passed on to the child’s future children. And, unfortunately, there is the potential that a mother would be pressured to have an abortion because of a possible condition that could affect the baby decades after he or she is born.

Preparedness or worry 

For many parents, NIPT offers the opportunity to be prepared mentally and emotionally for any chromosomal disorder their baby may have. While the screening cannot give them the certainty of a diagnosis, it can give an indication of probability. For some, this probability is helpful in considering the possible needs of their child and even the possibility that he or she will not live long after birth. Knowing a child has an increased likelihood of a chromosomal disorder allows community to come around and support a mother or couple through the pregnancy.

But for some parents, false positives can lead to increased worry, which could have a negative effect on the pregnancy. When a test result comes back with an increased probability of a chromosomal disorder, the couple is normally referred for genetic counseling. Unfortunately, this counseling can increase worry or come with pressure to abort the child. 

To test or not to test

While researching NIPT, I heard from many women who chose to have the test, but made it clear to their providers that it would not change anything about their pregnancies. For others, given the concerns and the possibility of false positivity, they chose not to have the screening. For them, the potential for increased worry was not worth the risk. 

Dr. Kenneth Singleton, an OB-GYN in Little Rock, Arkansas, shared how he counsels patients who are deciding whether to have NIPT. He advises them that one of the reasons the tests exist is to terminate pregnancies if there is a problem. He goes on:

Counseled correctly, our patients hear the “sanctity of life” bent, and the ones that choose to test are foremost excited about early gender discovery and then are wanting to be mentally prepared if there are other genetic issues that are discovered. I tend to share about my cousin with Down syndrome and also about my granddaughter Sage with trisomy 13. I know patients are getting pushed into testing and then counseled on termination. That is very sad. I have turned that around and use the test as a way to prepare patients mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for the life that God is giving them.

A role we all play

We may not be the ones making decisions about prenatal testing, but as a community of believers, we all have a role to play. As followers of Christ, we recognize the inherent value of every person, even the tiniest preborn baby. At times, prenatal screening will reveal health issues ranging from minor to life-threatening. Whether these issues are revealed early in pregnancy or after birth, we have the opportunity to support families caring for children with a variety of needs. In some cases, our willingness to do so could be the difference for a mother deciding whether to choose life after a difficult diagnosis. 

Receiving this hard news can lead to grief and a drastic change in expectations, even for families committed to life. Practical care like meals, a listening ear, and childcare for other children in the family are simple ways to show we are committed to walking with them on what may be a difficult path. Reaching out via text to ask for specific ways we can pray is a simple but powerful way to show someone they are not forgotten. 

Deciding whether to have DNA screening may be complicated, but deciding to support and care for expectant mothers and families around us is simple. We follow the example of our Savior when we welcome children into our lives, seeing their value and loving them sacrificially.

Catherine Parks

Catherine Parks writes and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, two children, and a cute dog named Ollie. She's the author of Empowered and Strong, collections of biographies for middle-grade readers. You can find more of her writing at cathparks.com Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24