Iceland Has Almost Eliminated Down Syndrome Births Through Abortion

Pope Francis blesses a child / Getty
August 15, 2017

Iceland is close to eliminating Down syndrome births through abortion.

The number of people born with Down syndrome has decreased in Iceland due to women choosing to terminate their pregnancy, CBS News reported Monday. Since the introduction of prenatal screening tests to Iceland in the early 2000s, close to 100 percent of women whose pregnancies test positive for Down syndrome have chosen to have an abortion.

Iceland's termination rate for Down syndrome is high compared to other countries. The United States has a rate of 67 percent (from 1995 to 2011) while Europe has an average termination rate of 92 percent.

The government of Iceland requires that all women be informed about the screening tests but does not require women to take the test. Around 80 to 85 percent of women choose to take the test, according to Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik. In Iceland, women can get an abortion after 16 weeks if the fetus has a deformity. The country classifies Down syndrome as a deformity.

One or two children are born with Down syndrome in Iceland per year, compared to 6,000 babies who are born with Down syndrome in the United States each year.

Hulda Hjartardottir, head of the Prenatal Diagnosis Unit at Landspitali University Hospital, said babies with Down syndrome are still being born in Iceland in part because the screening tests failed to detect the markers of Down syndrome.

"Babies with Down syndrome are still being born in Iceland," Hjaratardottir said. "Some of them were low risk in our screening test, so we didn't find them in our screening."

Helga Sol Olafsdottir, who counsels woman who have a pregnancy with a chromosomal abnormality at Landspitali University Hospital, discussed with CBS reporter Elaine Quijano how she counsels women who are trying to decide what to do with their pregnancy.

Olafsdottir tells women who are wrestling with the decision or feelings of guilt: "This is your life—you have the right to choose how your life will look like."

She showed Quijano a prayer card inscribed with the date and tiny footprints of a fetus that was terminated.

Quijano noted, "In America, I think some people would be confused about people calling this 'our child,' saying a prayer or saying goodbye or having a priest come in—because to them abortion is murder."

Olafsdottir responded, "We don't look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication ... preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder—that's so black and white. Life isn't black and white. Life is grey."

One geneticist is unsure whether the direction in which Iceland is going is the correct one.

"My understanding is that we have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society—that there is hardly ever a child with Down syndrome in Iceland anymore," said geneticist Kari Stefansson, founder of deCODE Genetics.

Quijano asked Stefansson, "What does the 100 percent termination rate, you think, reflect about Icelandic society?"

"It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling," Stefansson said. "And I don't think that heavy-handed genetic counseling is desirable. … You're having impact on decisions that are not medical, in a way."

Steffansson added that there is nothing wrong with parents wanting healthy children, but he said he is concerned about how far people should go to seek that goal.

Published under: Abortion