Genetic testing on fetuses has long been dangerous, difficult, and useful only for a small number of disorders, but a new technique allows scientists to sequence an unborn child's complete genome using only a blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father, reports the New York Times. The new, noninvasive process could make more than 3,000 genetic disorders testable prenatally—and, critics fear, make abortions much more likely, as parents will be able to test for a wide range of genetic factors—not just health, but appearance, athleticism, and other traits. "One always hopes, vainly, that in utero testing will be for the benefit of the unborn child," the founder of Pro-Life Alliance tells the Telegraph.
The process, which finds fetus DNA fragments in the mother's blood, then separates out the parents' DNA, for now is too difficult, inaccurate, and expensive (costing between $20,000 and $50,000), but as genome sequencing techniques improve and prices plunge, researchers think it could become practical within three to five years. They also say the testing period could be lowered from the current 18 weeks to the first trimester. “What I see in this paper is a glance into the future," said one geneticist. But even the writers of the new paper warn that "our capacity to generate data is outstripping our ability to interpret it in ways that are useful to physicians and patients." You can read an abstract of the original article at Science.