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Techniques & Technologies

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A microscope view of fluids removed during aminocentisis.

A microscope view of fluids removed during aminocentisis.

Credits:Wessex Reg. Genetics Centre, Wellcome Images.

In amniocentesis, fluid is extracted from the amniotic sac of a pregnant woman using a hollow catheter. The technique was first used by German doctors in the 1880s to relieve pressure on the foetus in a case of excess fluid. Since the 1950s this technique is used in prenatal diagnosis (diagnosis before birth). Cells and chemicals in the amniotic fluid can reveal a lot about the health of the foetus. At first, the fluid was tested to see whether maternal and foetal blood were compatible. Today, the foetal cells are used to perform genetic tests to detect conditions such as Down's Syndrome before the baby is born. This option of prenatal diagnosis may pose ethical challenges for the medical practitioner and the parents. The procedure carries a small risk of infection and miscarriage. Also, if any existing genetic abnormalities or other medical conditions are detected parents may be confronted with the question of how to respond. Already in 1960 researchers reported the first case of an abortion that was motivated by the test result that the foetus had a 50% chance of having haemophilia.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


R Rapp, Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America (New York: Routledge, 1999)

S J Reiser, ’The science of diagnosis: diagnostic technology‘, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopaedia of the History of Medicine, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge), pp 826-51



A flexible tube, narrow enough to be inserted into the body, where it is used for withdrawing fluids. Most typically used for extracting urine from the bladder.


The name given to the embryo during the later stages of development. In human reproduction it refers to an unborn child from its eighth week of development.