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Politics vs. medicine

Debate over prenatal testing shouldn't gloss over the science


By David May
Posted: February 25, 2012 - 12:01 am ET
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Here we go again. Last week brought yet another clash of science and politics into the national spotlight.

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And once again healthcare was at the center of the storm. No, it wasn't a continuation of the recent drama over the federal government's rules on employer coverage of contraception services. While that issue still hasn't blown over completely, a related topic captured headlines.

This time the debate was driven by comments from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who, based on his electoral triumphs in several primaries and caucuses to date, as well as recent polling data, clearly stands as one of the top two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.

His remarks last week questioned the role and purpose of prenatal testing, including his belief that such services should be restricted because they lead to more abortions. He tied those comments to another of his familiar attacks on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, saying in one interview last week that rules under the law requiring insurers to cover tests such as amniocentesis encourage more women to have abortions that will “cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.”

These are indeed strong statements, and Santorum says them with the conviction of his faith. But they're troubling on many fronts, especially relating to access to critical healthcare services for women and how they diminish the medical value of these diagnostic tools.

Clearly a goal of prenatal testing is to track the health of a developing fetus, looking for chromosomal abnormalities that might indicate any number of serious developmental problems. Could such information play a role in a decision to terminate a pregnancy? Of course. But in 21st-century medicine, that's also true of other technologies. Even some simple blood tests are used in prenatal diagnostic screening. Should governmental healthcare programs impose stricter limitations on which blood tests they will pay for?

Sonograms and ultrasound exams have long been routine for pregnant women to assist healthcare providers in answering the key question—is the baby healthy and developing normally? It's priceless information for the expectant parents. Are those procedures also to be dismissed as deleterious when they are diagnostic devices that in the vast majority of cases have nothing to do with elective abortions?

Another problem with Santorum's statements relates to the constant knocks against the Affordable Care Act—not just from his campaign—that the law amounts to meddling in the practice of medicine by government bureaucrats. How many times have we been told that the law's many provisions interfere with the physician-patient relationship?

So how is an attack on prenatal testing not meddling? How is it not rationing of essential healthcare? How is this not a rejection of scientific progress?

In the middle of all this last week, Google posted another of its intriguing and always creative “Doodles” on the search engine's homepage, this one using colorful undulating waves, marking what would have been the 155th birthday of an accomplished scientist named Heinrich Rudolf Hertz.

Hertz is the father of today's wireless world, being the first to broadcast and receive radio waves and determine that light and heat were forms of electromagnetic radiation. While the German physicist did achieve recognition for his research during his lifetime, the true scope of his accomplishments wouldn't be known until much later with the development of radio, television and the now-ubiquitous Wi-Fi. The “hertz” is even used as the standard measure of frequency.

His work is also indirectly linked to the development of something else already mentioned above: ultrasound technology.

It's nice to see science being celebrated, not denigrated.


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