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New media aids the debate on prenatal diagnosis

A wider public could be more involved in discussions on prenatal diagnosis and other complex ethical issues with the help of citizen conferences and new media.

“Prenatal diagnosis raises questions about the unborn life, attitudes towards the disabled, individual choice and the limits of medicine. It is a moral and political issue that affects many people and causes strong feelings”, says Cornelis Dekker who recently published his Judging in the Public Realm thesis at the Department of Technology and Social Change at Linköping University.

Prenatal diagnosis is performed in early pregnancy to detect certain birth defects and illnesses caused for example by chromosomal changes. In the event of such a diagnosis a parent-to-be may choose to terminate the pregnancy through abortion. 350 such abortions took place in Sweden in 2004.

Cornelis Dekker believes there is every reason to discuss ethical issues surrounding prenatal diagnosis, in an open dialogue involving both the public and experts. This could create an understanding of different positions, lead to more diverse influences over how the issue is handled and a greater legitimacy of the decisions taken.

In his thesis Cornelis Dekker studied the public discourse on prenatal diagnosis in the Netherlands and Sweden between 1989 and 2006. He notes that the discussion was dominated by experts in both countries and the difficulty in engaging the traditional media.

Layman conferences or consultations were held in the Netherlands to involve the public in difficult ethical issues, such as stem cell research.

“Consultations such as these, with their focus on layman terms, could be created to discuss prenatal diagnosis. Sweden does not have the same tradition of involving lay people in debates but Internet sites for comment and debate, such as newsmill.se, could be used to perform a similar function”, says Cornelis Dekker.

The debate on prenatal diagnosis was also more animated in the Netherlands than in Sweden.

“The Dutch authorities' recommendations were clearer than in Sweden and therefore sparked more debate”, says Cornelis Dekker.

Different aspects were highlighted in the debates in the two countries. In Sweden, much of the focus was on the human dignity of the foetus and the life oneself would like to live, whilst the protection of human life was an important argument in the Dutch debate. The Dutch have also to a greater extent viewed prenatal diagnosis as a medicalisation of pregnancy.

To analyse the debate Cornelis Dekker based his questioning in the philosopher Immanuel Kant's theory of the principles underlying the faculty of judgement.

Conrnelis Dekker continues, “Kant is very helpful as he also understands the other's perspective. Moreover, he invites us to assess whether our reasons are good reasons and to follow the principles applicable to all.”

The thesis was presented 27 March 2009 at Linköping University.


Therese Winder 2009-04-22




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Last updated: 2009-06-03