Down Syndrome Birth Rate Falls More than 50% in Europe

by Breanna Paniagua

According to a recent study performed by the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), disturbing data reveals a link between the increase of new noninvasive prenatal screening (NIPS) in Europe and the skyrocketing termination rate of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome.

MGH researchers report that birth rates for babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in European countries have fallen by an average of 54%. One of the primary aims of the study was to establish a standard for both birth rates and abortion rates of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in the wake of a widespread implementation of noninvasive prenatal screening in Europe, which can detect certain genetic abnormalities and determine the likelihood of chromosomal disorders (such as an extra chromosome) as early as nine weeks of gestation. After the initial screenings, an expecting patient may opt to pursue more conclusive genetic testing. 

MGH researchers report that birth rates for babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in European countries have fallen by an average of 54%.

While many European countries currently do not publicly fund NIPS, the increase in its availability is expected to lead to a significant decrease in Down syndrome births. For instance, according to a report conducted by CBS News in 2018, Iceland has nearly eradicated its population of babies born with Down syndrome, with close to 100% of women who receive positive tests for Down syndrome during prenatal screening electing to terminate the pregnancy. The country, which has a population of 330,000, only sees about two children a year born with Down syndrome, and even that number is sometimes due to inaccurate screening results.

While the overall number of Down syndrome births in Europe has fallen by over 50%, this birth rate varies across specific countries based on each country’s religious and cultural climate as well as access to counseling after prenatal screenings, education about Down syndrome, and support networks. Spain, for example, has seen the highest decrease in Down syndrome births at 83%, while Malta—which is one of the most pro-life countries in the world—saw a decrease of 0%. Overall, the study estimated that between the years of 2011 and 2015, 8,031 babies were born with Down syndrome, which would have been about 17,331 if not for the selective terminations of such pregnancies.

While the MGH researchers make clear that one of the primary goals of the study is to encourage governments and Down syndrome organizations to work collaboratively in incorporating thoughtful approaches to implementing NIPS, it’s important to take a very serious look at why so many countries are eager to wipe out an entire population just because they have an extra chromosome.

In CBS’s report on Iceland’s nearly nonexistent Down syndrome birth rate, Geneticist Kari Stefansson gives his perspective on what it says about Icelandic society:

“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,” he said… “It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling… 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.”

Sadly, it appears the mentality of “heavy-handed genetic counseling” is not unique to Iceland. In Australia, 60 Minutes promoted a new line of noninvasive prenatal testing that could “effectively end Down syndrome in the country” in 2017. In the Netherlands, women are encouraged to abort their babies who are diagnosed with Down syndrome out of “moral duty.” In Denmark, only 18 children were born with Down syndrome in 2019 (the country has a population of 5.8 million).

In Denmark, only 18 children were born with Down syndrome in 2019 (the country has a population of 5.8 million).

And while many proponents of NIPS have referred to “eradicating” or “ending” Down syndrome from society as if some sort of preventative measures have been introduced, the reality is that this result is only possible if every person diagnosed with Down syndrome during these screenings is eradicated. In Europe in particular, Down syndrome children are nearing an extinction that is entirely selective, and with this comes a loss of some of the most joyful and inspiring people this world has ever known.

But while increased prenatal screenings are contributing to a near extinction of Down syndrome babies in many European countries, individuals with Down syndrome are vocalizing their humanity and right to life—as well as their ability to live fulfilled and accomplished lives—more publicly than ever before, particularly in the United States. Take Karen Gaffney, the long-distance swimmer and advocate who made a name for herself swimming the English Channel and who was the first living person with Down syndrome to receive a doctorate. Or Frank Stevens, a man with Down syndrome who made headlines when he appeared before a House appropriations panel and pleaded with members of Congress: “Whatever you learn today, please remember this: I am a man with Down syndrome and my life is worth living.” Or the adorable Lucas Warren, who made history as the first “Gerber Baby” with Down syndrome in 2018. In addition, a Harvard University study from 2011 found that 99% of people with Down syndrome said they were happy with their lives, and nearly 99% said they loved their families.

These are individuals who are more than capable of leading joyful, fulfilled, successful lives. These are individuals who bring contagious joy to those who know and interact with them. These are individuals created in the image of God, and they are precious in His sight (Gen 1:27; 9:6). While access to NIPS becomes more widely accessible across the globe and prenatal testing becomes more advanced, let’s not forget the importance of advocating for those who don’t yet have the ability to voice their humanity, especially when their voices are dwindling so rapidly.

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