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News1992December › Deep voodoo › December 1992

Deep voodoo

Last autumn Michelle Huberman, who gave birth to a daughter with Down's syndrome, initiated a lb1m lawsuit against her doctor, obstetrician Yehudi Gordon, for allegedly failing to provide her with a particular prenatal screening test

Last autumn Michelle Huberman, who gave birth to a daughter with Down's syndrome, initiated a lb1m lawsuit against her doctor, obstetrician Yehudi Gordon, for allegedly failing to provide her with a particular prenatal screening test.

The so called "triple test" that Ms Huberman says she should have been offered analyzes three substances in the mother's blood as markers for Down's syndrome. These measured levels, plus the mother's age and genetic history, are thrown into some mathematical stew in order to determine her personal odds of having a Down's baby. The test is supposed to be a better marker than age alone for determining whether a woman should go on to have amniocentesis, which more accurately determines whether a child has Down's syndrome.Yehudi Gordon's international reputation is based upon a brilliantly cautious approach to medical intervention. When the test was introduced a year ago, Mr Gordon decided against routinely offering it to his patients not only because it was new and untried, but also because the test had such a a poor record of accuracy. At best, it detects 70 per cent of Down's babies in women under 35. This accuracy rate plummets to 50 per cent in women over 35 those supposedly most at risk.

Those who receive a positive triple test result must wait five or six anguished weeks before receiving the results of the recommended amniocentesis to confirm or deny the suspicious results of the first test. All those receiving a false positive needlessly undergo the amnio test, which increases the risk of miscarriage from 3 to 4 per cent. In other words, one out of every 100 women with a false positive triple test opting for amniocentesis will abort a normal baby.

If Ms Huberman prevails, the obstetrician who has done more for active, non medicated child birth than just about anyone else in Britain could be castigated by his peers for being rightfully wary of a highly inaccurate test. Other doctors will feel compelled through fear of litigation to offer the triple test to every pregnant woman who steps through their doors, needlessly increasing anxiety and miscarriages.

Although this case is being dressed up as a feminist one, what it's really all about is blind faith. If Huberman wins, it will mean that it is better to needlessly risk your baby's death with a test recognized to be wrong half the time than to acknowledge mystery or doubt. It will represent triumph of voodoo technology over reason.

And they say religion is dead in the West.


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