Magazine article The Spectator

Television: A World without Down's Syndrome; Louis Theroux: Savile

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: A World without Down's Syndrome; Louis Theroux: Savile

Article excerpt

At my wife's first 12-week scan, I was expecting -- and duly got -- that much-documented sense of thrilled wonder at the grey blobby thing on the screen. What came as a genuine shock, though, was realising the scan also had the entirely undisguised aim of calculating the baby's chances of Down's syndrome, on the apparent assumption that, if they were high, we'd want to terminate.

In the event, this wasn't a dilemma we faced -- which possibly makes it easy to take the moral high ground. Even so, the whole process left me feeling both uneasy and rather naive. How long had this been going on? Did everybody else know about it? And if so, when had they discussed it?

A World without Down's Syndrome? (BBC2, Wednesday), presented from the heart by the actress Sally Phillips, starkly answered the first and third of these questions: screening for Down's was introduced in Britain 30 years ago, and there was no public discussion at all. Like me, you might also not have noticed that the government recently gave the go-ahead for a more accurate form of screening on the NHS. Described as 'the most exciting development in pregnancy care for decades', it's similar to the kind available in Iceland, where the termination rate following a Down's diagnosis is now 100 per cent.

Phillips began the programme by showing us film of her 11-year-old Down's son Olly telling jokes (not very good ones, admittedly), playing with his siblings and generally charming the pants off us. 'I was expecting tragedy,' said Phillips, amid the happy chaos, 'but I got comedy.'

From there, she headed for the more orderly world of King's College Hospital to ask Professor Kypros Nicolaides, a foetal-screening specialist, 'What's so very dreadful to the world about Down's?' In fact, the Professor didn't look best pleased at having his authority questioned by a woman whose only qualification was loving her own Down's child 'more than life'. Nonetheless, he managed to stay calm as he pointed out that because such children sometimes 'live for very many years', they can be 'a burden to a family and society that lasts a very long time'. Besides, he assured Phillips, the whole idea of screening is simply to offer women more choice.

And choice, of course, was the explanation put forward by all the medical professionals that Phillips questioned -- even if none appeared in much doubt as to what the choice should be.

As her investigations continued, Phillips often seemed understandably tempted to abandon her patient quest for information in favour of a full-on rant. …

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