German parliament debates prenatal blood tests to detect Down Syndrome

Should genetic tests, which clarify your baby´s health before they´re born, be paid for by health insurance companies? During an open debate in German parliament, many were in favour - but not everyone.

German parliament debates prenatal blood tests to detect Down Syndrome
A woman receiving a blood test at an university clinic in Münster in 2010. Photo: DPA

There is broad support in parliament for health insurance companies to pay for blood tests which determine if an unborn child will have Down Syndrome – but only if it's limited to high-risk pregnancies, for example for women over 35 or who have already had a child with chromosomal abnormalities.

In a debate on Thursday, numerous members of parliament from all political groups spoke out in favour of financing this lower-risk method, as well as the usual amniotic fluid tests, which are already covered by health insurance.

SEE ALSO: German MPs voice concern about prenatal genetic tests

Several parliamentarians warned, however, that such tests lead to more abortions of embryos considered to have defects and stigmatize people with Down Syndrome and their parents.

Speakers unanimously called for better counselling and much stronger support for people with disabilities.

Since 2012, prenatal blood tests have been offered to pregnant women to determine, among other things, whether their child would be born with Down Syndrome. For a long time, it had only been possible to estimate this with an amniotic fluids test. 

Up to now, the blood tests, which cost around €130, have mostly been paid for by the patient.

'The tests cannot be used to cure disease'

Centre-left Social Democrats (SPD)´s health expert Karl Lauterbach emphasized during the debate that such blood tests are not only safer, but that the procedure is much more advanced than previous methods.

He added that it would be ethically unfair to deny the new improved blood tests for those women who wish to take them. Additionally, he campaigned for a future panel of scientists discussing advice on other genetic tests.

“We will get tests for almost every conceivable disease,” he added.

The Green Party´s disability expert, Corinna Rüffer, who was one of the initiators of the debate, felt that the test would simply be a way for health insurance companies to generate more profits.

“The tests cannot be used to cure disease, as Down Syndrome is not disease,” she said.

A person with Down Syndrome normally has an extra chromosome in each cell, leading to physical abnormalities and a slow mental and linguistic development. The characteristics, however, vary widely.

The chairman of the German Ethics Council, Peter Dabrock, has previously argued that parents-to-be have the right to information about the state of health of their unborn child.

A Joint Federal Committee of Physicians, Insurers and Clinics is currently discussing new health insurance benefits, and has signalled that this is regarded as medically justified for pregnancies with high risks for complications. A decision is expected to be reached in August.

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