What is Prenatal Genetics?

G. Wiesen

Prenatal genetics is the study of genetic factors that can affect an unborn child, usually through considering family background of the child and running tests on the mother and child. These tests can include non-invasive procedures such as ultrasound imaging, more complicated tests that can require blood samples from a woman who is pregnant or considering pregnancy, and even genetic testing of an unborn child still in the womb. There are a wide array of congenital illnesses and other medical conditions that can be identified through this type of testing. Prenatal genetics can be a somewhat controversial field due to the potential for abuse that such testing and information could create.

Prenatal genetic tests may be used to determine if a developing child needs special observation.
Prenatal genetic tests may be used to determine if a developing child needs special observation.

Sometimes called prenatal screening, the study of prenatal genetics can be useful in identifying risk factors for a wide range of birth defects and congenital disorders. Much of this research cannot be used directly to alter the chances of defects or disorders forming, through genetic manipulation, but is typically used for education and preparing future parents for the challenges they may face. A great deal of testing involved with prenatal genetics is performed on the parents or prospective parents to determine any genetic predispositions they or their offspring may have toward certain illnesses.

Prenatal genetics can include genetic testing of a baby in the womb.
Prenatal genetics can include genetic testing of a baby in the womb.

This often includes information about the family histories of each parent, called their “pedigree.” Prenatal genetics research for a couple can include basic medical histories as well as blood tests to learn more about their genetic makeup. Once a woman is pregnant, there are other types of tests that can also be run to include information determined directly from the fetus. This can include ultrasound scans that show the physical appearance of the child as well as drawing out amniotic fluid for testing, though this can be potentially dangerous to the child.

Information gained through prenatal genetics can be used to identify the possible risks of a wide range of illnesses and disorders. This can include birth defects or disabilities that a child may be born with, as well as basic health information. The parents of an unborn child may be notified of possible health risks they should be aware of while raising their child. These include everything from higher risks of heart disease or cancer to an increased likelihood of a child being asthmatic or autistic.

Gathering information about prenatal genetics is something of a controversial subject, however, due to the nature of such information. There is fear among some individuals that such information could be used to terminate pregnancies due to increased health risks of a child, regardless of any actual illnesses. The subject of prenatal genetics has also been of interest to science fiction writers with regard to the potential for genetic manipulation and engineering of “more perfect” children during fertilization.

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