Don't write off babies with microcephaly

Dr Chew Shing Chai's response to the possibility of microcephaly in foetuses from mothers with the Zika virus raises important questions about children with intellectual and developmental abnormalities ("Zika a limited but difficult fight"; last Thursday).

His conclusion that "there is no treatment and abortion is the only alternative" for a foetus diagnosed with microcephaly reflects a line of thought equating babies having developmental abnormalities with the termination of their lives. According to this way of thinking, such children are considered to have lives not worth living.

While it is certainly not easy to bring such children up, they should not be considered burdens to society to be terminated at all costs, but rather, as gifted individuals who are more than their disabilities and who form an integral part of a gracious and mature society.

Furthermore, while it is true that microcephaly is often associated with learning disabilities and neurological problems, there are cases where the child is born without such conditions.

Also, the severity of microcephaly is not predictive of the level of disability the child will have.

Hence, the microcephalic baby should not be written off but be approached with compassion and hope for the best possible outcome.

Current medical literature cautions that microcephaly may not be accurately diagnosed until later in pregnancy, and in some cases, only after birth.

From this perspective, recommendations which call for "abortions to be extended to 28 weeks for Zika-affected microcephalic foetuses", are untenable and reveals the arbitrariness of the premises on which abortion is based.

We know that the validity of the causal relationship between Zika and microcephaly is still being studied and that local experts believe that the rate of microcephaly in Singapore is more likely to be around 1 per cent.

If this is true, then the risk of microcephaly in a Zika-infected pregnancy is about the same as the risk of having a birth defect in any other pregnancy.

Instead of falling into "microcephalo-phobia", let us focus our efforts on preventing the spread of the virus.

The Government should not extend the abortion limit, but work to eradicate mosquito breeding and provide assistance to families with intellectual disabilities so that we can allow the flourishing of both the abled and disabled alike in our modern society.

Colin Ong Eng Choon (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Don't write off babies with microcephaly'. Print Edition | Subscribe