In Part 1 and Part 2 of this three part post, I described the continuity of explicitly eugenic goals in post-WWII genetics as illustrated by some aspects of the history of the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG). Here I follow these eugenic threads up to the modern day to help us understand the complicated and at times antagonistic relationship between geneticists and people with disabilities, their families, and their advocates. I pick up the story with the introduction of amniocentesis into clinical practice.
It is probably not a historical coincidence that “genetic amniocentesis” began to flourish once safe, legal abortion became available in the US and other countries in the 1960s and 1970s (amniocentesis had been performed for therapeutic reasons and for monitoring fetal lung maturity and Rh incompatible pregnancies for some time prior). In the 1970s, cell culturing techniques and cytogenetic G-banding allowed reliable prenatal detection of fetal karyotypes. Prenatal testing was initially made available to pregnant women who were 35 or older. The story that is told – our collective memory – is that this age cutoff was chosen because at age 35 the probability of an unbalanced karyotype in the fetus was greater than the miscarriage rate of the procedure. In fact, the primary reason that this cutoff was chosen was economic cost-benefit – the cost-savings by preventing births of children with Down syndrome outweighed the cost of the procedure and lab work. Or, as the authors from a 1973 article in The Lancet more bluntly put it:
“We are less certain about the balance and costs [of amniocentesis] at current rates of screening the whole pregnant population. But is a detailed estimate of the costs required? The lifelong care of severely retarded persons is so burdensome in almost every human dimension that no preventive program is likely to outweigh the burden.”
As each new form of prenatal diagnosis was introduced into clinical practice – maternal serum screening for neural tube defects, chorionic villus sampling, ultrasonography – the scope of conditions considered for prenatal screening expanded, as did the number of pregnant women “eligible” for testing. For example, alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) screening was introduced to detect spina bifida and anencephaly and then broadened when it was discovered that low maternal serum AFP was linked to fetal Down syndrome, trisomy 18 and other aneuploidies and genetic conditions. Detection rates continued to rise as additional analytes (e.g. hCG, estriol) were incorporated into testing. Ultrasonography was initially seen as a tool to measure fetal growth, verify viability, and to identify multiple gestations. It soon became a diagnostic and screening tool for detecting neural tube defects, then Down syndrome, and eventually many uncertain, minor, and profound fetal anomalies. Targeted carrier screening for genetic conditions enriched in certain populations such as Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews grew to include ten or twenty conditions, and now covers hundreds of rare genetic conditions, regardless of ancestry.
Up until the 1990s, most studies that tried to measure the success of genetic counseling focused on reproductive decision making and the impact on the incidence of disabilities. Thus, prenatal testing continued the historical thread of the overarching clinical concerns of medical geneticists that the gene pool was unhealthy and that disability was a medical and familial tragedy as well as an economic drain to be avoided. Compared to counseling patients to make the “right” reproductive decisions, prenatal testing was a more direct tool for avoiding disability and its associated costs. You might counter-argue that not all women choose to have an abortion when faced with an abnormal prenatal test result. Although there is wide variability in termination rates when Down syndrome is detected prenatally (<50% t0 >90%), estimates suggest that prenatal screening in the US has resulted in about a 1/3 reduction in the prevalence of Down syndrome. Other studies show that the ultimate effect of carrier screening is to prevent the birth of children with genetic conditions.
This expansion in prenatal testing occurred with minimal input from people with disabilities, their families, or their supporters. Or input from too many others outside of the genetics and obstetrics communities. No careful weighing of ethical and social values, no seeking of diverse viewpoints. Pretty much any time a new test was shown to be clinically valid or an old one was improved, it was incorporated into clinical practice, a trend that accelerated once genetic testing became big business. Offering genetic testing to all pregnant women for a whole bunch of conditions, well, there’s gold in them thar’ hills.
I know that the view from inside the clinic is very different. Women faced with a positive prenatal test result make difficult, highly situated, emotionally difficult decisions that have little to do with concerns about the health of the gene pool or reducing the population frequency of genetic conditions. But the view from outside the clinic yields a different picture, one in which prenatal testing can look like an existential threat. In addition, people with disabilities get no palpable benefit from prenatal screening, and, tellingly, very little research has been done that tries to demonstrate medical or psychological or developmental benefits to prenatal testing. With rare exception, we are not even trying to show that prenatal testing is helpful beyond allowing the option of termination, even if we claim – with little proof – that it can help prepare a family for the birth of a child with a disability. Advertising for prenatal tests typically pitch the product as a way of ensuring “healthy babies.”
Bias against people with disabilities is not limited to prenatal clinics. It also manifests in genetics clinics where patients and families come for diagnosis and management of congenital and genetic conditions. What, you say? No way. Medical geneticists and genetic counselors are being helpful. We are figuring out what their medical problems are and helping them manage, adapt to, and live with them. We fight and advocate for them.
Yeah, that’s true and we damn well better be doing that stuff. I never met a genetics professional who wouldn’t charge into Hell for their patients. But. A patient visit to a genetics clinic can feel like entering a wunderkammer, a Cabinet of Curiosities, where they are cataloged for their freakishness and pinned in the glass case of a journal article or clinic note. We put them under a clinical microscope to parse out the ways they are different in excruciating detail – the length and shape of their philtrum, the set of their ears, the distance between their pupils, the gap between the first and second toes. Their DNA is analyzed in nano-fine detail in search of pathogenic variants that set them apart from the rest of us. Their rich family histories are reduced to circles and squares that we blacken and mark with death slashes. In effect, clinicians are (unintentionally) doing everything they can to show how patients are different from the clinicians. Geneticists may not be blatant ableists, but they can unintentionally reinforce systemic ableism.
Even the psychological aspect of genetic counseling – what we like to think makes us the ethical antithesis to eugenics – is historically steeped in prejudice against disability. As the historian Marion Schmidt has demonstrated, the history of psychotherapy around disability is rooted in negative stereotypes. Psychotherapists’ theories were based on the assumption that cognitive and physical disability produces unique psychological disabilities for patients and their families. When psychotherapeutic techniques were incorporated into genetic counseling, it was to help families work through the emotional trauma induced by having a “defective child” so the family could ultimately make “logical choices.” For example, Arthur Falek, the director of the first psychiatric genetics department at Emory University, in a chapter on psychological aspects of genetic counseling in a 1977 genetic counseling text, wrote “lack of guidance and realistic planning in families with genetic disorders can lead to disastrous results.” Or as Steven Targum wrote in a paradigm-shifting 1981 article on psychotherapy in genetic counseling “With the advent of prenatal diagnosis and screening programs to determine carrier status, prospective genetic counseling programs have become a reality. Such counseling may avert much unwanted human suffering. The psychotherapeutic considerations discussed in this paper may be applied to prospective parents who need to anticipate the impact of a defective child on them.”
It’s no wonder that people with disabilities might look at geneticists with a wary eye. Viewed with their lens, we’ve been working to reduce their numbers and label them as disappointments to society and their families, even as we paradoxically advocate for them. Sometimes when we are working to do good we can do bad. It is so deeply rooted in our history and our practice that we have a difficult time seeing it. There are parallels here with White people’s attempts to support Black lives that has often served to reinforce systemic racism. This criticism is difficult for us to accept in much the same way that those who run diversity training programs have found that White people who profess to be non-racist have a hard time accepting that their thoughts, words, and deeds can negatively impact people of color. And, like Blacks in America, people with disabilities have suffered from discrimination in housing, medical care, employment, voting, and education. Laws may grant basic rights to ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, but they still have to fight tooth and nail to get those laws enforced.
I am not claiming to be a spokesperson for people with disabilities. I am not in a position to present their views, which may vey well differ from mine. Rather, I am using a historical narrative to try to understand why some people with disabilities may be ambivalent and distrustful of clinical geneticists and genetic counselors. There have been plenty of articles written about these matters, plenty of speakers at conferences, and course work in training programs. That’s all good, but more concrete actions need to be taken. We could conduct more studies on whether there are benefits to prenatal screening beyond pregnancy termination. We can hold more robust and diverse discussions to develop guidelines for deciding which conditions to incorporate into prenatal and carrier screening that are more measured, respectful, and ethically balanced. We need to teach a more honest assessment of our history. We should understand and respect our past but we shouldn’t honor ethically flawed practices like eugenic sterilization by naming awards after their advocates. When we are criticized we need to react receptively, not defensively. We should be as dedicated to these goals as we are to fighting for racial equality. Amen.