, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 79-89,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 30 Aug 2011

Genetic screening and democracy: lessons from debating genetic screening criteria in the Netherlands


Recent decades have witnessed increasing possibilities for genetic testing and screening. In clinical genetics, the doctor’s office defined a secluded space for discussion of sensitive reproductive options in cases of elevated risk for genetic disorders in individuals or their offspring. When prenatal screening for all pregnant women became conceivable, the potential increase in scale made social and ethical concerns relevant for the whole of society. Whereas genetic testing in clinical genetic practice was widely accepted, prenatal screening at a population level met with unease. Concerns were raised regarding social pressure to screen: the sum of individual choice might result in a ‘collective eugenics’. The government’s involvement also raised suspicion: actively offering screening evoked associations with eugenic population policies from the first half of the 20th century. By reconstructing elements of policy and public debate on prenatal screening in the Netherlands from the past 30 years, this article discusses how the government has gradually changed its role in balancing the interest of the individual and the collective on genetic reproductive issues. Against a background of increasing knowledge about and demand for prenatal screening among the population, governmental policy changed from focusing on protection by banning screening toward facilitating screening in a careful and ethically sound way by providing adequate information, decision aids and quality assessment instruments. In the meanwhile, invigorating democracy in public debate may entail discussing concepts of ‘the good life’ in relation to living with or without impairments and dealing with genetic information about oneself or one’s offspring.

Special Issue: Genetics and Democracy