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The Downside of Prenatal Information

We pregnant women adjust our diets, lapping up mountains of prenatal information in lieu of risky foodstuffs, hoping to give birth to perfectly healthy Super Newborns.
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Pregnancy, despite its ubiquity and the fact people have been doing it since there have been people, is complicated. Achieving it can be a whopper for many, whether because they're infertile (like I was, ultimately relying on IVF to fulfill my desire to be a mom) or in a same-sex relationship or on their own. They may have waited too long and found themselves bumping up against degraded reproductive systems, whether their own or at a profit-hungry fertility clinic.

Sustaining pregnancy can be tough, too. But even when it is confirmed, solid, enduring, it can be complex. While it's fascinating to consider the life developing inside your body and beautifully intimate to share physical functions, it's hard not to worry you're somehow screwing it up. You think you may not be eating optimal foods at their recommended amounts; that you're ingesting poisonous compounds, that sweet potato on your dinner plate actually an orange sponge for the toxin-laden raindrops that moistened the organic soil within which it grew.

For the past few decades, since women stopped smoking and drinking during pregnancy, no longer able to bum cigarettes off the doctors who mostly quit then, too, there's been a push towards maximizing healthy fetal development. Nutrition has improved, doctors and the Easter Seals people recommending folic acid in hefty does to stave off preventable birth defects like spina bifida. Certain mercurous seafoods have joined their uncooked cousins on cautionary lists. Others, those packing the biggest nutritional punch, are pushed on pregnant women by their doctors, peers, the media, and the folks at the Dairy Council. So we pregnant women adjust our diets, lapping up mountains of prenatal information in lieu of risky foodstuffs, hoping to give birth to perfectly healthy Super Newborns.

Prenatal technologies have also advanced with ultrasounds and ultra-sensitive tests capable of scoping out genetic problems well before a baby hits dry land. Such tests are a boon to worried parents, allowing them to confirm the requisite number of manual digits, the existence, or not, of a penis, many months before they actually meet their child. These tests can also indicate the existence of a disability or disease, even the risk of one, allowing parents to opt out of bringing a child to term altogether. An article in the May 13th New York Times stated that approximately 90 percent of women who learn they are carrying a fetus with the chromosome that causes Down syndrome choose to abort.

But is there a disabilities hierarchy? Should more manageable disabilities -- those less clearly a cause for abortion -- be set on the lower rungs, while the unambiguously awful and therefore worth eradicating be placed up top? With IVF, you need not even wait for pregnancy to unearth lurking problems. You can ask your docs to perform pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) in which a single cell is plucked from the multi-celled cluster comprising the embryo and parsed for a host of genetic traits. Gender and physical attributes can be divined, dangerous chromosomes discovered or ticked off a list. But it's a slippery slope as risk doesn't necessarily translate into actuality. In fact, there's a fairly high likelihood that any one of us actually extant adults wouldn't have made the embryonic grade had all this technology been available to our parents.

But who is to say that a fetus with Down syndrome is better off never born? Prenatal tests have made it so that the expectant parents are the ones to say. And having met my fair share of fellow parents, including the dad I observed Blackberrying while his toddling son scaled a sagging jungle gym with rusty protrusions circa 1945, I can only conclude that many of us are ill-equipped for such heavy matters.

Putting aside for the moment the enormous debt of gratitude I owe to medical advances, my three girls being a direct result of them, I still have to wonder if we'd all be better off not having access to so much knowledge about health potentialities. Life can be knotty, unknowable and hard to explain. Apparently healthy babies can develop pediatric cancers; marathoners can die suddenly of undetected aneurisms. But in our quest to control this sort of chaos, it behooves us to guard against abusing medical technology. Of course, there are debilitating conditions, serious issues that promise grave suffering not only for the parents, but for the afflicted child. Certainly, there are health issues guaranteed to drain a family's resources. But it is easy to misuse these glimpses at formerly invisible things and too easy to overreact. It is too tempting to try to organize even the messiest parts of our lives, which is a shame because messiness and miracle are so often intertwined.