Science | August 17, 2017 9:00 am

Why Iceland Has a Low Down Syndrome Birth Rate

Only one or two children per year are born with Down syndrome in Iceland.

A baby girl with Down syndrome.

Iceland has found a way to virtually eliminate Down syndrome—but to call it highly controversial is an understatement.

The vast majority of pregnant women in the Nordic island nation choose to terminate their pregnancy if a prenatal screening test shows a positive for Down syndrome, according to a new report from CBS News.

“My understanding is that we have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society—that there is hardly ever a child with Down syndrome in Iceland anymore,” geneticist Kari Stefansson said.

When asked what this high abortion rate says about Icelandic society, he replied: “It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling…I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring to have healthy children, but how far we should go in seeking those goals is a fairly complicated decision.”

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes developmental and intellectual delays, as well as distinctive facial abnormalities.

An ultrasound, blood test and the mother’s age determine if a chromosome abnormality is present. An estimated 85 percent of women in Iceland choose to terminate their pregnancy if the test is positive. That number is estimated to be 67 percent in America, 77 percent in France, and 98 percent in Denmark.