A health ministry expert panel drew up a report Wednesday that clarified the Japanese government's first commitment to prenatal genetic testing.
The report on a new type of prenatal test designed to detect chromosomal abnormalities of unborn children from their DNA in expectant mothers' blood calls for the ministry, academic societies and other parties concerned to establish a new steering committee.
It also includes plans to devise criteria for facilities to conduct the tests and promote the certification of such facilities.
Currently, the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology (JSOG) plays the main role in compiling such criteria. But the expert panel has found it necessary for discussions on them to adopt a wider perspective.
According to the report and other sources, the proposed steering committee will comprise specialists from the ministry, the JSOG, the Japan Pediatric Society (JPS) and patient groups as well as those who have expertise in ethics.
The committee, to be set up as early as this summer at the Japanese Association of Medical Sciences, will certify large-scale test facilities capable of offering advice on heredity and abnormalities in chromosomes as well as affiliated clinics and allow them to carry out the tests.
The report points out that it would be appropriate to offer information about prenatal tests so pregnant women can understand them and judge whether to take them, revising the long-held policy, hammered out in 1998, of not actively providing such information.
But at the same time, the report advises that explanations about prenatal tests not be widely distributed in the form of brochures so that expectant mothers will not be misled into thinking that the tests are encouraged.
Such explanations should only be made on the proposed committee's website, it says.
The report also underscores the importance of getting hospitals as well as welfare and patient groups ready to support mothers informed of disorders in their unborn babies.
Meanwhile, no specific regulations on unauthorized facilities are mentioned.
Prenatal DNA tests began in Japan in 2013. The JSOG has drawn up guidelines and certified only large-scale medical institutions with full-time specialists in heredity counseling, on concerns that such tests may lead to the selection of who should live.
Soon after the introduction of the new type of tests, the number of unauthorized facilities surged, as the tests, costing some ¥200,000 per case at the time, were lucrative. A lack of adequate counseling services also became a problem.
The JSOG announced in 2019 and 2020 reviews for its guidelines to allow medical practitioners with training to conduct prenatal tests, aiming to increase the number of certified facilities.
The JPS opposed the reviews at one point, for fear of counseling services becoming inadequate.
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