A study comparing attitudes to prenatal genetic testing and abortion among university students in three countries including Australia has found the Australians were more likely to consider a pregnancy termination if a predisposition to alcoholism, cancer, or a short life expectancy was diagnosed than their counterparts.
The study, which compared attitudes of over 900 Australian, Japanese and German students, was conducted by sociology lecturer Ingrid Muenstermann from Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society with colleagues in Japan and Germany.
“One of the objectives of the study was to find out the attitudes of young people in different countries to prenatal genetic testing,” said Ms Muenstermann. “Another was issues that may trigger termination of pregnancy.”
Students were asked to agree or disagree on a sliding scale to statements including all expecting parents should have access to prenatal diagnostic testing; such testing should be made compulsory for couples who are at risk to pass on a gene abnormality; and to have a disabled child creates a burden on society.
The two issues which showed no differences in attitudes among students from the different countries were prenatal diagnosis should be paid for by private or public health insurance; and all expecting parents should have access to this service.
However there were marked differences in attitudes to other statements.
“For instance in Germany very high levels agreed with ‘the risk to abort because of prenatal diagnosis is too high, it discourages me from having the procedure carried out’,” says Ms Muenstermann. “Australian students did not share this concern.”
More Australian, than Japanese or German, students agreed with the statements regarding ‘compulsory prenatal diagnosis if there is a genetic risk’ and ‘people who are known to suffer from a genetic abnormality should only be allowed to have children if they agree to abort the foetus that carries the gene abnormality.’
“These attitudes correspond with the answers to the statement ‘to have a disabled child creates a burden on society’,” said Ms Muenstermann. “More statements in Australia agree with that statement than the ones in Germany and Japan. In Germany the approval is lowest which could be a result of Germany’s Nazi history.”
She said the results for what people wanted to know and when they would abort were very similar with again “Australians leading the way.”
“Overall the Japanese group showed the highest means when asked to consider pregnancy termination which could reflect the contraception practice in Japan where abortion is still a means of contraception and a commonly used procedure,” said Ms Muenstermann. “But the results could also have been determined by religious values.
“German students showed very low means regarding termination except when it comes to intellectual impairment. Australian students would consider pregnancy termination more often when predisposition to alcoholism, cancer or short life expectancy is diagnosed.”
She said while the Japanese wouldn’t necessarily see it as a reason for pregnancy termination they were very interested in finding out the hair and eye color of the unborn child.
“Looking at correlations of our results, the Australian group again showed the highest correlation between the wish to know and the intent to abort, and this was for predisposition to dwarfism, schizophrenia and homosexuality,” she said.
Ms Muenerstann said one of the reasons for the Australian students’ prominent responses could be that they were the oldest group of students and compared to their Japanese and German counterparts, many were married and had children.
“And modern society deals with many uncertainties,” she said. “When we analysed our different student groups, the personal fears and society’s expectations regarding ‘be healthy, act healthy and have a healthy family’ had to be kept in mind. People may feel pressured to abort if there is a suspicion of a genetic risk. People do not want to be a burden on society. This relates to the new eugenics, a concept where responsibility rests with individuals compared to what was done in Nazi Germany where the state took control and removed people who it thought would not fit into society.
“Our study has certain limitations, we only surveyed university students, so it’s not representative of entire national groups, but the study does present some trends and the new eugenics is one of them.”