KIM LAWTON, guest anchor: Expanding medical technologies continue to create a host of new ethical dilemmas. For example, researchers can now detect early in a pregnancy if a fetus has Down syndrome. The condition usually results in some degree of physical and mental disability. Armed with that information, some expectant parents face the wrenching decision of whether to terminate the pregnancy. Bob Faw reports.
BOB FAW: On the playground at recess, six-year-old Benjamin Allard couldn't be happier. And in Mrs. Logan's kindergarten class in Franklin, Massachusetts with his circles and colors, Benjamin also flourishes ...
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER (To Benjamin): What are you going to take?
FAW: ... even though Benjamin has Down syndrome.
BETH ALLARD: Just like any other child, you give him an opportunity, and work with them, and they can do whatever they aspire to do.
FAW (To Ms. Allard): Even if they're different?
Ms. ALLARD: Yeah.
FAW: Now Beth Allard marvels at her son. But when she remembers what her pediatrician told her when she was pregnant at 36, she can only shudder.
Ms. ALLARD: She said, "I just want to let you know what your life's going to be like. He's going to make your life hell. He won't be able to read or write or do anything. He may not be able to speak." The reason I considered terminating the pregnancy was, well, my doctor's telling me this. And I don't know much about it, so maybe she's right and I really need to do this.
FAW: Largely because of her Catholic faith, Beth Allard decided to continue her pregnancy.
ELLEN WIXTED (Talking to Husband): My concern is that if I do that ...
FAW: Seven years ago, faced with the prospect of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome and heart defects that often afflict those infants, Ellen Wixted, 35, chose to abort her baby.
Ms. WIXTED: I just couldn't imagine having all of the normal stresses of being a parent and on top of that, you know, raising a child with really, you know, potentially very severe physical disabilities as well as an unknown degree of mental retardation. All I could envision was a spiral of, sort of not being able to work, not being able to work in the studio, not being able to, you know, have a normal life. What that led to logically was ending the pregnancy, which I felt was morally wrong.
FAW: Now, with two children born later, Ellen Wixted says that decision to abort haunts her as much today as it tormented her then.
Ms. WIXTED: It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. It was hard to -- it was hard to function at all, really. And, you know, my husband is incredibly supportive, and it was still the hardest thing I think I've ever gone through.
FAW: Two women and two different responses to Down syndrome -- a genetic abnormality in which an extra chromosome generally results in mild or moderate retardation and other health problems.
Ms. ALLARD (To Benjamin): How about this foot over here? Bend that knee.
FAW: Every year 5,000 babies are born with the defect, many to older women. Recently, using ultrasound and blood tests, doctors developed a new technique to identify the condition in the first trimester. Advocates for the disabled, however, worry that the test, administered before some feel human life has fully begun, will be used to abort more Down syndrome babies.
BEVERLY BECKHAM (Newspaper Columnist): What troubles me is this first trimester test just is like a missile that targets children with Down syndrome. So, what if other children aren't born with Down syndrome? Then maybe Lucy will be an endangered species?
FAW: The light of Beverly Beckham's life in Canton, Massachusetts is her two-year-old granddaughter Lucy, her Lulu Belle, who has Down syndrome. Fifty years ago, children with Down syndrome were labeled "mongoloid."
(To Ms. Beckham): Years ago we would institutionalize kids like this?
Ms. BECKHAM: Right. And now we kill them. I think that all of this money spent trying to find them and eliminate them would be far better spent trying to educate and take care -- provide.
FAW: In one sense, Lucy's birth was unusual. Doctors estimate that when faced with the prospect of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome, 80 percent of mothers choose to terminate their pregnancies.
UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR (To Child): Should we do some colors?
FAW: This clinic at Children's Hospital in Boston provides early intervention for children with Down syndrome. Its director, Dr. Allen Crocker, is troubled that so many women choose not to give birth to babies with the condition.
Dr. ALLEN CROCKER (Senior Associate in Medicine, General Pediatrics, Children's Hospital, Boston): There is a broad failure to understand the meaning of this kind of special person. I see joy, both in myself and in them. And when I stand back and look at the larger scene, we are all the richer for having a diverse society.
FAW: For three decades, geneticist Elsa Reich has been counseling pregnant women. Doctors, she argues, should tell expectant mothers medical facts, not try to influence moral choices.