‘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.”

Down’s syndrome births drop 30% in hospitals where new screening tests rolled out

Figures published today show that 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 figures, released as a result of a number of Freedom of Information requests, show that among the 26 hospitals that provided the tests, there was a change in the birthrate for babies with Down’s syndrome from 1 in 956 births in 2013 to 1 in 1,368 in 2017.

Down’s syndrome advocates are calling on the Government to halt the roll-out of the new tests and undertake an inquiry into the impact that the tests are having on the birth numbers of babies with Down’s syndrome.

The Department of Health has previously admitted that no assessment was made of the impact that the roll-out of the new tests will have on the lives of people with Down’s syndrome. 

Collete Lloyd, whose daughter Katie, 22, has Down’s syndrome obtained the figures. She told The Times that she would struggle to explain to her daughter how the tests could be justified, saying:

“How would I tell her, ‘We have a test so that women can make a choice of whether they want to keep a baby like you or not’? It is not a pro-choice or pro-life thing at all. It is the woman saying: ‘I want a baby but I don’t want a baby like that.’”

Only four babies were born in Oxfordshire this year with the condition compared with 12 in 2015.

The release of the figures comes as a recent report revealed that pregnant mothers who refuse to abort their children with Down’s syndrome are being pressured by some medical professionals to change their decision.

One mother, whose child is now three-years-old, said medical professionals told her they could leave her baby with Down’s syndrome to die if it was struggling after birth.

Another mum told how even at 38 weeks pregnant she was being offered an abortion. Currently, abortion for disabilities including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot is legal right through to birth in England, Wales and Scotland, and 90% of babies with Down’s syndrome identified in the womb are aborted.

Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for Right To Life UK 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 the UK. The figures released today show that new non-invasive prenatal tests are likely to lead to even more babies who have Down’s syndrome being aborted. 

“The Government should not be rolling out these tests if there is evidence that they are leading to more babies with Down’s syndrome being aborted. Now there is clear evidence this is the case, it’s time that the Government pulled the rollout.”

Lynn Murray, spokesperson for the Don’t Screen Us Out campaign said:

“As a mother of a 19-year-old daughter who has Down’s syndrome, I see every day the unique value she brings to our family and the positive impact she has on others around her.

“The figures released today show that the fears of the Down’s syndrome community that rolling out these tests would lead to a large drop in the number of babies with Down’s syndrome were not unfounded.

“We are calling on the Government to halt preparations to further roll-out the tests on the NHS immediately and to undertake an urgent inquiry into the impact that these tests are having on birth numbers of babies with Down’s syndrome.”