Prenatal Whole Genome Sequencing

Just Because We Can, Should We?


  • Greer Donley,

  • Sara Chandros Hull,

  • Benjamin E. Berkman

  • Greer Donley, Sara Chandros Hull, and Benjamin E. Berkman, “Prenatal Whole Genome Sequencing: Just Because We Can, Should We?”


Whole genome sequencing is quickly becoming more affordable and accessible, with the prospect of personal genome sequencing for under $1,000 now widely said to be in sight. The ethical issues raised by the use of this technology in the research context have received some significant attention, but little has been written on its use in the clinical context, and most of this analysis has been futuristic forecasting. This is problematic, given the speed with which whole genome sequencing technology is likely to be incorporated into clinical care. This paper explores one particular subset of these issues: the implications of adopting this technology in the prenatal context without a good understanding of when and how it is useful.

Prenatal whole genome sequencing differs from current prenatal genetic testing practice in a number of ethically relevant ways. Most notably, whole genome sequencing would radically increase the volume and scope of available prenatal genetic data. The wealth of new data could enhance reproductive decision-making, promoting parents' freedom to make well-informed reproductive decisions. We argue, however, that there is potential for prenatal whole genome sequencing to alter clinical practice in undesirable ways, especially in the short term. We are concerned that the technology could (1) change the norms and expectations of pregnancy in ways that complicate parental autonomy and informed decision-making, (2) exacerbate the deleterious role that genetic determinism plays in child rearing, and (3) undermine children's future autonomy by removing the option of not knowing their genetic information without appropriate justification.