‘Screening out’ babies with Down’s syndrome seen as ‘cash cow’ for Chinese firm

A Chinese biotech firm has declared “screening out” babies with Down’s syndrome is a “cash cow” funding the growth of the whole business.

The admission comes from a spokesperson for BGI Group – a Chinese genetics conglomerate whose main business is offering non-invasive prenatal tests, primarily used to diagnose Down’s syndrome. 

In a segment from an Aljazeera documentary titled Genesis 2.0, the spokesperson gestures towards a digital map of the world and says: “You can see clearly, especially for Down’s syndrome, we have nearly two million samples all over the world. This part is, what we call, BGI’s cash cow, making money to support the growth of the whole group.”

Dismissing a query over potential ethical concerns, she coldly adds: “…with the use of our technology, we could avoid the birth of birth defect, like a Down’s syndrome birth, a Down’s syndrome child, we can screen them out, we can avoid the birth of them.”

Responding to the video, parents of those with Down’s syndrome expressed shock and anger at the comments.  

One such mother commented: “She says ‘defect’, I say ‘difference’. That’s all it comes down to. And she had no answer to his questions about ethical implications.”

Another mother tweeted: “Well, we knew this inside, people try to cover it in CHOICE. But really, no. It’s profiting from discrimination. I actually feel sick.”

This isn’t the first time BGI group or it’s co-founder and Chairman, Wang Jian, has courted controversy.

In 2018, the businessman caught the media’s attention for saying in an interview it would be a “disgrace” for any of BGI Group’s 7,000 employees to have a child with a birth ‘defect’.

Wang said: “It would mean that we are fooling society and just eyeing others’ pockets.” He added that there are no known serious congenital diseases among the 1,400 infants that have been born to the company’s employees.

Wang doesn’t just want to eliminate children with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities, he also wants to promote a eugenicist mindset across the whole of China and prevent those with “a worrisome combination of genes” from having babies.

In the same interview, he said: “China has 85 million disabled [people], and 70 to 80% of these disabilities are from birth defects.

“We can really prevent this. We can do pre-marriage testing – to flag relationships in which partners carry a worrisome combination of genes – and prepregnant, prenatal.”

BGI Group’s core fertility business, BGI Genomics, generated more than half of the company’s revenue according to the company’s annual report.

The company claims it had processed over 4 million non-invasive prenatal tests globally by the end of 2018.

In its annual report, BGI group said “[translation] various product lines have been established in various fields of birth defect prevention” and expressed a desire to “expand” to prenatally diagnose for deafness and other genetic abnormalities.  

Figures published last year found the number of babies born with Down’s syndrome has dropped by 30% in NHS hospitals that have introduced new non-invasive prenatal tests.

The release of the figures came shortly after the release of a report revealing that pregnant mothers who refuse to abort their children with Down’s syndrome are being pressured by some medical professionals to change their decision.

Currently, 90% of babies with Down’s syndrome identified in the womb are aborted in England, Wales and Scotland.

A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson said:

“Our current law allows babies with Down’s syndrome to be aborted right through to birth. Already 90% of babies diagnosed in the womb with Down’s syndrome are aborted in Great Britain.

“The Government has previously admitted that no assessment was made of the impact the roll-out of non-invasive prenatal tests will have on the lives of people with Down’s syndrome. In an answer to a parliamentary question the Department of Health confirmed that ‘…no assessment was made of the impact of NIPT on the number of abortions, Down’s syndrome community and medical professional and society’s attitudes towards people with Down’s syndrome.’

“Now there is clear evidence the tests are leading to more babies with Down’s syndrome being aborted it’s time that the Government pulled the rollout, and stopped being a ‘cash cow’ for companies like BGI.”

“Our culture’s narrative of celebrating diversity and championing inclusion amount to nothing but empty words when as a society we develop and promote tests whose foreseeable consequence is the elimination of people with certain types of diversity.

“The fact that the birth rate of babies with Down syndrome has already fallen by 30% in hospitals where the test has been rolled out is scandalous and confirms campaigners’ fears.”

UN official criticises ‘liberal eugenics’ of disability abortion

A United Nations human rights expert has brought fresh attention to some of the many negative consequences of disability-selective abortion and assisted suicide in a wide-ranging report on disability rights to the Human Rights Council on people with disabilities.

Special rapporteur Catalina Devandas-Aguilar is a Costa Rican lawyer who has spina bifida and has three children with the condition.

Unfortunately, Catalina Devandas Aguilar’s report has been overlooked because of the current focus on the coronavirus pandemic. 

Beginning of life: Prenatal screening

In the report, Catalina shares how technological advances in prenatal screening has resulted in a steady rise of prospective parents choosing to abort children like her own. 

She revealed how “in some high-income countries, high uptake rates for screening have already been associated with significant reductions in the number of children born with some congenital disabilities.”

Evidence of this can be seen across the UK, which recently reported a 150% rise in disability-selective abortions relating to cleft lip. Additionally, figures show 90% of babies with Down’s syndrome are aborted and estimates show the figure is around 80% for babies with spina bifida.

Catalina, who herself has spina bifida, suggests the use of prenatal screening is a cost-saving measure – as it is often cheaper to abort a baby than offer life-affirming treatment. She says: “Genetic screening must never be considered to be a cost-effective alternative to providing the highest attainable standard of care or service for persons with disabilities.”

In 2013, it was revealed a staggering £30 million had been spent in the UK on prenatally screening babies for Down’s syndrome. In comparison, less than £2 million was spent on research that would improve the lives of those who survive the eugenic screening process. 

Catalina rightly points out that such practices “may reinforce and socially validate the message that persons with disabilities ought not to have been born,” a concern shared by disability rights activists.

“Legislative frameworks that extend the time frame for a lawful abortion or,

exceptionally, permit abortion in the presence of fetal impairment aggravate this message,” she adds. 

“In addition, as the consequence is a smaller number of persons with disabilities being born, some fear a reduction in disability advocacy and social support for persons with disabilities.” 

End of life: Assisted suicide

Catalina is even stronger on the issue of assisted suicide saying “an impairment should never be a reason for assisted dying to be permitted.”

The Costa Rican lawyer, highlights how legalising assisted suicide will place at risk the lives of persons with disabilities.

“If assisted dying is made available for all persons with a health condition or impairment, regardless of whether they are terminally ill or not, a social assumption might follow that it is better to be dead than to live with a disability,” she says. 

“Generally, when life-ending interventions are normalized outside the end stage of terminal illness, persons with disabilities and older people may increasingly feel the need to end their lives.”

The report states how those with disabilities are vulnerable to explicit and implicit pressures to undergo an assisted suicide ‘procedure’, including expectations from family members, financial pressures, cultural messages and even coercion.

During life: ‘Futile treatment’?

In addition to highlighting the discrimination disabled people face at the beginning of life and at the end of life, Catalina reveals how disabled people are discriminated during their life.

“It has been reported that physicians may exert pressure on critically ill patients and their families to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment based on the belief that further treatment would be futile, non-beneficial or potentially inappropriate, particularly for patients with severe impairments.

“That subjective assessment, based on the physician’s opinion and values, includes an assumption on the resulting quality of life of the individual and thus involves a risk that it is influenced by ableist views of living with a disability.”

She adds: “Similarly, cost-effectiveness considerations may also result in the denial of life-sustaining treatments to some persons with disabilities.” 

Catalina concludes her report by suggesting countries who are member states of the UN should: “Conduct a comprehensive legislative and policy review to abolish all laws, regulations, customs and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities, including in the context of medical or scientific procedures, research and experimentation.”

Before the publication of Catalina’s report, a campaign was launched in the UK to stop abortion being available up to birth for disabilities such as cleft lip, club foot and Down’s syndrome. 

Heidi Crowter, a 24-year-old woman who has Down’s syndrome, has launched a landmark case against the UK Government over the current discriminatory abortion law that singles out babies with disabilities allowing abortion right through to birth.

Cheryl Bilsborrow, whose two-year-old son Hector has Down’s syndrome, has also joined Heidi in bringing forward the case.

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland made a key recommendation that the UK change its abortion law on disability so that it does not single out babies with disabilities. However, the Government has decided to ignore this recommendation.

Additionally, a 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion for Disability found the vast majority of those who gave evidence believed allowing abortion up to birth on the grounds of disability is discriminatory, contrary to the spirit of the Equality Act 2010 and that it affects wider public attitudes towards discrimination. 

The Inquiry recommended Parliament reviews the question of allowing abortion on the grounds of disability and should consider repealing section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act which allows for it.

Disabled peer Lord Shinkwin has previously had a Bill in the House of Lords that would have repealed section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act – the Bill was undefeated but unfortunately ran out of time. Lord Shinkwin’s Bill was supported by Disability Rights UK.

Indian ministers intend to introduce “eugenic” abortions says Indian Health Minister

A new Bill will be put forward in India which will remove legal safeguards for unborn babies and likely permit abortion up until birth for babies with serious disabilities, in what the Minister for Health is calling “eugenic” abortion.

Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (1971) abortion is permitted without restriction in India up until the 12th week of pregnancy. Abortion is then permitted up until the 20th week of pregnancy with the approval of two doctors.

An amendment to this Bill is currently being drafted which will aim to increase the availability of abortion and even permit abortion up until birth if the baby has a serious disability.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that the ministry was in the process of finalising the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Draft Amendment Bill, 2019.

The Minister said: “The Ministry [of Health] has proposed to amend the MTP Act, 1971, to… expand access to abortion services on therapeutic, eugenic, humanitarian and social grounds.”

The move to increase abortion access in India comes at the same time as a series of Bills across the Commonwealth seeking to do the same. In New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia, Bills which make abortion legal up until birth are going through their parliaments, and the Parliament in Westminster has just voted to remove all legal safeguards surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland through to 28-weeks.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said:

“It is astounding to hear the Minister of Health speak so candidly about ‘eugenic’ abortion. Eugenic abortions frequently happen in the West but they are rarely characterised as such. For example, approximately 90% of babies in the UK diagnosed in the womb with Down’s syndrome are aborted.”

Eugenicist Marie Stopes could have name removed from London university

Marie Stopes, a eugenic pioneer and namesake of one of the UK’s largest providers of abortions, could find her name removed from plaques at her former university after renewed interest in her role as a pioneer of eugenics and an alleged racist.

Following pressure from staff and students, a committee of inquiry is investigating the historical links of University College London (UCL) with a number of historical eugenicists, including Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in addition to Marie Stopes.

The university currently commemorates Stopes – who became a fellow of UCL in 1910 – for her scientific achievements, but questions are being raised as to the appropriateness of this given her many unsavoury views.

Marie Stopes – whose name lives on most famously in the abortion provider, Marie Stopes International – is well-known to have advocated for the state forced sterilisation of what she called the “ever increasing stock of degenerate, feeble-minded and unbalanced…”

Her views on ethnicity and race are also considered deeply problematic. For example, in 1934 she publicly stated that ‘the half-caste’ should be sterilised at birth and she even sent Adolf Hitler love letters.

Geneticist Veronica van Heyningen, President of the Galton Institute – named after Francis Galton, another eugenicist whose views are being questioned – suggested that the university could install plaques explaining the achievements – and the historical wrongs – of a particular scientist. But their names should not be removed, she added.

The abortion provider, Marie Stopes International, has been criticised for continuing Stopes’ own racist and eugenicist legacy due to their abortion provision in developing countries. Last year, a number of their centres were shut down in Niger because they were said to be performing illegal abortions, and in Kenya for illegally promoting abortion.

Clare McCarthy from Right To Life UK said: “It shouldn’t be controversial to say that Marie Stopes was a racist and eugenicist. She believed in the ‘elimination of wasteful lives’.

The only surprising thing is that it has apparently taken UCL so many years to acknowledge her loathsome views.

Questions need to be asked why one of the world’s largest abortion providers – Marie Stopes International – continues to bear her name.