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Ultrasound screening in pregnancy: advancing technology, soft markers for fetal chromosomal aberrations, and unacknowledged ethical dilemmas


  • Getz, Linn
  • Kirkengen, Anne Luise


Fetal ultrasound screening has become routine practice in many western countries. During the last decade, such screening has led to frequent situations characterised by clinical uncertainty due to the disclosure of soft markers in the unborn child. Soft markers are minor anatomical variations indicating a somewhat increased likelihood that the fetus has a chromosomal aberration, most frequently trisomy 21 (Down syndrome). This paper presents the results of a comprehensive literature search of the National Library of Medicine with emphasis on the chronological development of scientific knowledge in relation to soft markers and the link between advancing imaging technology and clinical counselling dilemmas. An analysis of the literature makes evident that many ultrasound examiners have counselled individual pregnant women on the basis of insufficient data. Moral dilemmas have thus emerged as a direct result of advancing medical technology, and healthy fetal lives prove to have been lost due to invasive diagnostic testing aimed at resolving clinical uncertainty. Ultrasound examiners have warned against a policy of disclosing all findings of soft markers to expectant parents, but no exploration of experiential aspects linked to the disclosure of fetal soft markers has yet been published in the medical literature. The emotional reactions of mothers are important to consider given their potential impact on the biological development of the fetus. In conclusion, this paper stresses the need for paying close attention to the crucial distinction between technology development and technology implementation in relation to prenatal testing. Furthermore, it provides strong arguments for scrutinising the interface between prenatal testing and human experience.

Suggested Citation

  • Getz, Linn & Kirkengen, Anne Luise, 2003. "Ultrasound screening in pregnancy: advancing technology, soft markers for fetal chromosomal aberrations, and unacknowledged ethical dilemmas," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 56(10), pages 2045-2057, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:56:y:2003:i:10:p:2045-2057

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    Cited by:

    1. Williams, Clare & Ehrich, Kathryn & Farsides, Bobbie & Scott, Rosamund, 2007. "Facilitating choice, framing choice: Staff views on widening the scope of preimplantation genetic diagnosis in the UK," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 65(6), pages 1094-1105, September.
    2. Hammer, Raphaël P. & Burton-Jeangros, Claudine, 2013. "Tensions around risks in pregnancy: A typology of women's experiences of surveillance medicine," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 93(C), pages 55-63.
    3. Reid, Bernie & Sinclair, Marlene & Barr, Owen & Dobbs, Frank & Crealey, Grainne, 2009. "A meta-synthesis of pregnant women's decision-making processes with regard to antenatal screening for Down syndrome," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(11), pages 1561-1573, December.
    4. Gammeltoft, Tine & Nguyen, Hanh Thi Thuy, 2007. "Fetal conditions and fatal decisions: Ethical dilemmas in ultrasound screening in Vietnam," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 64(11), pages 2248-2259, June.
    5. Vailly, Joëlle, 2008. "The expansion of abnormality and the biomedical norm: Neonatal screening, prenatal diagnosis and cystic fibrosis in France," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 66(12), pages 2532-2543, June.
    6. Williams, Clare & Sandall, Jane & Lewando-Hundt, Gillian & Heyman, Bob & Spencer, Kevin & Grellier, Rachel, 2005. "Women as moral pioneers? Experiences of first trimester antenatal screening," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 61(9), pages 1983-1992, November.
    7. Graham, Ruth H. & Robson, Stephen C. & Rankin, Judith M., 2008. "Understanding feticide: An analytic review," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 66(2), pages 289-300, January.


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