A benign-sounding Ontario initiative could result in more abortions

Few people living in Ontario have ever heard of the Fetal Alert Network (FAN). According to its webpage, FAN’s goal is “to provide coordinated access to the best care for all women whose babies have suspected or confirmed birth defects, regardless of where they live,” as “time can be a crucial factor in her ability to make decisions for her pregnancy and ensure she has the appropriate level of care for her delivery.” It all sounds very good, but is it?


FAN was established in 2004 with the joint support of the Hospital for Sick Children and Mount Sinai Hospital. Its regional partners are the Hamilton Health Sciences Centre, Kingston General Hospital, St. Joseph’s Health Care in London and Ottawa General Hospital. Each regional unit is staffed by a nurse coordinator and physician who work to direct each pregnant woman to the medical services she needs, including genetic testing. The FAN has also obtained registry status, meaning that it now operates a database that tracks women who go through the FAN system: it monitors their genetic conditions, treatments and screenings, and outcomes of their pregnancies.

The full range of FAN’s actions, though, is not explicitly stated on its web site. Kim Hessels, president of Dunnville Right to Life, gave a presentation to the province’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs on April 21 to speak against an amendment to Bill 173, schedule 13, in which she mentioned the FAN as an example of how the Ontario health care system devalues the lives of infants. Hessels explained to The Interim: “They offer early intervention into the pregnancy: abortion,” noting it is “trying to make sure the disabled babies aren’t being born.” Admitting this outright, however, would be “offensive to a lot of people,” says Hessels, so by stating the goal is to give birth to healthy babies, FAN uses terms that reflect “what everybody wants.”

The organization’s 2005 training powerpoint hints at these problems. One slide shows pictures of a child with Trisomy 13 beside a picture of a Cyclops. Another slide shows a child suffering from Sirenomelia beside a picture of a child in a mermaid costume. These pictures dehumanize children that are victims of genetic conditions. Another slide depicts a chart from Health Canada showing how much “birth defects” and “perinatal” care cost the health care system in 1998.

The Fetal Alert Network’s 2006-2007 Annual Report illustrates some of the organization’s activities. It records that from May 1, 2005 to April 31, 2006, 956 patients were entered into the FAN database. More than half of women chose to have prenatal testing (53 per cent). Of these women, most chose tests that screened for three conditions at once: Down’s syndrome, trisomy 18, and neural tube defects. More than four-fifths of women (84 per cent) who were referred to “tertiary care centres” for further diagnosis and treatment did so after an “ultrasound abnormality” was detected. The majority of them were in their 23rd to 25th weeks of pregnancy. Just 5 per cent came because they were screened positive for a birth defect in a prenatal test and the visit was made in the 14th to 16th weeks of pregnancy.

Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of children born to women registered in the FAN database were live births, whereas 28 per cent of pregnancies ended in “pregnancy interruption” – a euphemism for abortion – and 6 per cent were stillborn.

Genetic anomalies are not treatable. The only course doctors can offer is abortion or to prepare expectant parents for children with various disabilities. Mary Ellen Douglas, president of Campaign Life Coalition Ontario, told The Interim, that because there is nothing else they can do, physicians nudge the mothers of children with genetic anomalies and disabilities to kill their children.

The Fetal Alert Network is now a member of BORN Ontario, along with Ontario Maternal Multiple Marker Screening, Ontario Midwifery Program, Niday Perinatal Database, and Newborn Screening Ontario. These five organizations “are integrating their data into one accurate and timely maternal-child registry” to form an “authoritative information system” to support the government in improving maternal-child health services, states BORN’s website. BORN is funded by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. It conducts its own research and gives other researchers access to its data.