How To Tell If Prenatal Testing Is Right for You
From blood work and ultrasounds to NIPTs, many expectant parents undergo prenatal screenings. These tests are normal. Commonplace. Many are routine. But there are risks to genetic testing, both before and during pregnancy. A New York Times article recently revealed these tests can be inaccurate, indicating the presence of rare diseases or gene mutations that do not exist. False positives can also occur, and the toll of genetic testing can be more emotional than physical, says Ellen Simpson, Ph.D., a genetics counselor in the prenatal diagnostic center at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. It can be disappointing and incredibly stressful to learn that you, your partner, and/or your baby carries gene mutations.
"My wife and I struggled with this issue with every pregnancy, even before we started trying," Michael Kress—a Parents contributor—says. "Would we bring a child into the world knowing he or she will suffer greatly or live a tragically short life? Where is the line between loving every life and having compassion on a suffering being? What diseases would we consider too horrible for a child to suffer from and which ones might be manageable?"
So how do you move forward? Here are a couple of questions you should ask yourself before undergoing a pre- and/or post-conception genetic screening.
How Strong Is Your Personal and/or Family Risk For Genetic Disorders?
You're more likely to need screening if you have a family history of an intellectual disability or cystic fibrosis, if you or your partner is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent or if both of you are Caucasian or European.
"As an Ashkenazi Jewish couple, my wife and I have been tested for a staggering array of disorders, a number that has expanded with each of her three pregnancies," Kress says. "These included well-known illnesses like Down syndrome to virtually unknown ones, many of which are specific to our ethnic group."
Do You Have a Hard Time Dealing With Unknowns?
Some people are comfortable with ambiguity and can skip screenings without worrying, says Dr. Simpson. "One reason some couples don't want testing is that they don't want to put themselves into the position of having to make a decision about termination." But if you feel most comfortable when you have all the information you can, screening may help put your mind at ease if everything looks fine—or, allow you to prepare yourself to find support or specialized care for the baby if results show your child is at risk.
- RELATED: Your Prenatal Test Checklist
"Some people feel just knowing there's a risk their child could be ill is enough preparation," says Dr. Simpson. "For others it really is helpful to connect with a support group or meet the doctors who will care for the baby after birth. Depending on what the condition is, you could also save the baby's life by delivering at a hospital with specialized facilities rather than a regular community hospital."
What Will You Do With Your Prenatal Test Results?
While knowledge is power, knowledge for the sake of knowledge can be a double-edged sword. Before deciding to undergo genetic and/or prenatal tests, consider what you will do with the results.
Are You Willing to Take the Risks?
Any "test" comes with risk, and while the risks associated NIPTs—or noninvasive prenatal tests—are minimal, if these tests come back with not-so-great news, more invasive procedures may be needed. As such, it's imperative you weigh the risks of specific prenatal tests—such as anxiety, pain or possible miscarriage—against the value of knowing the results.