Tag Archives: eugenics

The Benefits and Blinders of Do-Goodism

“All human beings are commingled out of good and evil.” Robert Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde

Genetic counselors are good people who want to do good. And that also goes for the vast majority of clinicians in all specialties and support staff who I have ever worked with. We may have brief dalliances with cynicism but overall we strive to be highly competent professionals who deliver compassionate care to patients in hopes of improving their physical and emotional health in small and large ways. We subscribe to the ethos of Do-Goodism – we strive to do good because it is the right thing to do. It’s why we drag ourselves out of bed and show up for work every day. It sure isn’t out of love for the daily commute, an overloaded work schedule, or the out-of-touch-with-reality dictates of upper level management.

Do-Goodism is a, well, good thing. There should be lots more of it in the world (especially among governments). But Do-Goodism has its downsides. Okay, let me stop right there. I am not criticizing Do-Goodism nor am I advocating for D0-Badism. So don’t accuse me of criticizing people for being good. But a  problem inherent to Do-Goodism is that can make it very difficult for us to see and acknowledge that when we try to do good things there can be bad outcomes. Our Good Filters block out the Bad Rays generated by our well-meaning actions. Recall what the road to you-know-where is paved with.

A good historical example of the blinders of Do-Goodism is eugenics, that bogeyman of every historical narrative of genetics. While nowadays we look down on eugenics with moral scorn, in fact, with a few obvious exceptions, many eugenics advocates in the US, the UK, and elsewhere genuinely thought they were improving not only the greater good of society but also the “dysgenic” families themselves. Philosophically, eugenics may have been closer to “a kind of genetic social work” than Sheldon Reed would have been comfortable acknowledging. Another historical example are the 19th century alienists who ran the so-called madhouses – whose records were critical to the development of modern genetics and eugenics – where “lunatics” were housed and supposedly cured with fantastical rates of supposed psychiatric problems such as masturbation and menstrual disorders.

Br. Benjamin Rush’s Tranquilizer for treating patients with mental illness. It “binds and confines every part of the body … Its effects have been truly delightful to me. It acts as a sedative to the tongue and temper as well as to the blood vessels.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do-Goodism still pervades genetic practice today, albeit in different forms. We sometimes advances policies, practices, and tests in the name of “helping people” when the benefit/downside ratio has not been well established. In my own practice of cancer genetic counseling, I think of how seamlessly BRCA testing has expanded to gene panels that include dozens of genes, many of which are of uncertain clinical utility. Even after ~25 years of research on BRCA we still debate the lifetime cancer risks, the mortality reduction of risk-reducing mastectomy, and the benefits of endocrine prophylaxis. In the US, Lynch syndrome patients are encouraged to join The Annual Colonoscopy for Life Club but the data is still not settled as to whether an annual colonoscopy is more beneficial than less frequent exams . And these are the genes that we know fairly well. The clinical implications  and best risk-reducing strategies for carriers of other typically tested genes like NBN, RAD51D, or BARD1 are pretty much anyone’s educated guess.

There are complex reasons why gene panel testing has become so widely incorporated into medical care. but I am pretty sure one of the motivating reasons we offer panel testing is that we think that by “finding an answer” to explain the family history, we are benefiting our patients. But are we really helping these patients by offering breast MRI screening with its high cost and false positive findings, risk-reducing surgeries, etc.? Are we explaining their family histories with these tests? Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t. We should have had that answer in hand before the testing was incorporated into clinical practice instead of turning a bunch of clinical patients into an unplanned and haphazard research project.

This was brought into sharp focus for me with a BRCA positive kindred I have been working with. A family member was identified as an asymptomatic BRCA mutation carrier, subsequently underwent risk-reducing surgery, and an occult Fallopian tube cancer was identified at an early enough stage that cure was highly likely. This made me feel like I should notch a victory mark on my belt. After all, preventing ovarian cancer is understandably offered as one of the urgent justifications of BRCA testing. I felt that I pulled the rug out from under ovarian cancer’s evil legs – until the patient died of complications of MRSA acquired during her hospital stay. And this in a situation where everyone would agree that the data strongly supports surgical risk-reduction. Should we be risking such outcomes by offering testing for genes in which there is no large body of research to support clinical recommendations?

Do-Goodism also pervades other areas of genetic testing and counseling. Expanded carrier screening. Noninvasive Prenatal Testing. Advocating for whole exome sequencing of newborns or of healthy adults. Direct-to-Consumer genetic testing. Clinicians and labs offer these tests in the name of helping people and democratizing genetic testing, but this can lead us to psychologically manipulate ourselves into ignoring or downplaying studies that suggest that maybe we should step back before we aggressively offer these tests. The blinders of Do-Goodism can be further exacerbated when our jobs seem to compel us to offer bigger and supposedly better tests to keep up patient volumes or corporate profits. Do-Goodism is not confined to genetics, of course. It also underlies long-standing debates about routine mammography, PSA screening for prostate cancer, and cardiac defibrillators in medically fragile elderly patients, to name a few.

We are not bad clinicians or evil profiteers, just human beings struggling with our psychological limitations. It’s why we need to thoughtfully listen to thoughtful critics who question our clinical practices. They make some very good points but only if we can allow ourselves to see them.

 

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Albatross

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross

About my neck was hung.

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,

He rose the morrow morn.

– Excerpts from The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Eugenics. I can hear the thud as the collective eyes of genetic counselors roll heavily at the mention of the E-word.  That finger has been wagged in our faces ad infinitum. Alright already, we have learned our lesson from this shameful past. That was like more than half a century ago. Do we have to still keep apologizing for something we never did? Enough with the hand-wringing and perseveration. We’ve smoked this one down to the filter.

Well, no, apparently we are not done. As historian of medical genetics Nathaniel Comfort has pointed out in a recent thoughtful Genotopia blog (with an equally thoughtful commentary by Alex Stern, the biographer of our profession), eugenics discussions are back with us. We need to keep having the discussion because apparently we are not sadder and wiser people this morn. Some even think – with great hubris, in my view – that with our supposedly greater wisdom and technological advances, maybe some version of eugenics is not such a bad idea after all.

I am not going to repeat Nathaniel’s and Alex’s arguments here; visit the Genotopia blog and read the originals. What I want to do is to offer a  framework for thinking about the issues raised by these historians and introduce the concept of genetic discrimination into the mix.

Genetic discrimination, in my definition, is discrimination based on a person’s presumed or actual genotype and it’s presumed or actual phenotypic expression. The word discrimination comes from  the Late Latin discriminationem, meaning “to make distinctions” and can have both negative and positive connotations. Racial and gender discrimination that results in suffering and inequity is bad. But a discriminating person is one who shows great taste for fine things. Not to try to dance too many angels and devils on the head of this pin, but perhaps when discrimination has a negative effect, it could be called dyscrimination.

Eugenics, then, can be viewed as a form of negative genetic discrimination, the goal of which is to improve the genetic health (whatever that means) of future generations.

Prenatal diagnosis, the usual aim of eugenic critiques, is not eugenic because it does not try to alter allele frequencies of future generations. Down syndrome is almost never an inherited disorder, and people with Down syndrome rarely reproduce. Prenatal diagnosis is not an attempt at “the self direction of human evolution,” as the 1921 Second International Eugenics Congress defined eugenics.  But from the standpoint of some, prenatal diagnosis is a form of negative genetic discrimination – fetuses are discriminated against because of their genome and the common but inaccurate perception of the Down syndrome phenotype as a backward child with a heart defect but a pleasant personality. Although the insensitive term mongolism is rare these days, the common image of “the Mongol child” has not evolved as much as it should have.

Pre- or early pregnancy screening of parents for mutation carrier status for various genetic conditions, on the other hand, might rightfully come under eugenic criticism since its explicit goal is to improve the genetic health of future generations and to wipe out genetic diseases by preventing the conception of homozygous recessive offspring. Never mind the nonsense spewed forth on some websites; carrier screening usually has very little to do with improving the health and quality of life of babies who are born with genetic conditions. Carrier screening can result in reduced suffering if fewer children are born with life threatening or medically serious disorders but it rarely improves the health of babies who are born with those conditions. Whether this is a “good” or a “bad” form of eugenics, and how commercial laboratories advertise their product, are questions open to healthy debate.

Newborn screening, as it is currently practiced, is not eugenic because its intent is to improve the health of a child by treating the presumed phenotype based on the genotype. Newborn screening could thus be viewed as a positive form of discrimination, albeit one with flaws that we are not comfortable acknowledging . But newborn screening can also be viewed as negative genetic discrimination, depending on the condition being screened for. Some people who are deaf have raised serious concerns about screening newborns for hearing loss.

Genetic screening for adult onset disorders like Lynch syndrome or familial hypercholesterolemia may be positive genetic discrimination. The goal of this screening is to treat the phenotype based on the genotype with the hope of reducing the incidence of serious, life-threatening diseases or to mitigate their effects. Dietary changes, treatment with statins, high risk cancer screening, and surgery are strategies that are offered to people at increased hereditary risk of developing these diseases. Of course, if there were to be widespread preimplantation or prenatal diagnosis for these conditions, then we should rightly raise eugenic questions.

Why make these distinctions? Because the word eugenics has become an angry accusation that ends discussions. The social effects of genetic medicine and genetic counseling should always be open to vigorous scrutiny but the criticism needs to be accurate and sensitive to nuance. Maybe some of what we genetic counselors do is eugenic, and maybe under certain situations, this may not be as terrible as it sounds. And maybe some of what we do is dyscriminatory but not eugenic; we need to understand why it is dyscriminatory so we can do something about it. And maybe lots of what we do is very helpful for many people and not particularly eugenic. To cram all of medical genetics into a eugenic framework prevents any progress from ever being made. The two sides start to resemble Democrats and Republikans in a dysfunctional Congress, never able to engage in meaningful debate. Let’s get this albatross off our necks.

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VARIATIONS IN A MINOR KEY: SOME THOUGHTS ON PRENATAL TESTING IN AN ERA OF WHOLE GENOME SEQUENCING

James Watson is many things – geneticist, Nobel laureate, agent provocateur – but in the realm of psychiatry he is first and foremost the parent of a son with schizophrenia.  So when he spoke in 2007 at the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics, it was as a family member, albeit a family member with an unusually good grasp of the science.  And it was as a family member that he exhorted the scientists in the audience to keep up the good work, so that “someday we could identify those individuals destined to suffer from mental illness in utero, and weed them out.”

How often do you hear an audible gasp in the midst of a plenary talk?  The dismay and the indignation were palpable.  Researchers throughout the day interrupted their talks on GWAS to express in the strongest possible language that the goal of their work was to understand the pathophysiology of the disease and perhaps to aid in diagnosis – not to provide pre-symptomatic risk  assessment and not – no, never – not to be used prenatally.

“But if this is what families want,” I asked one speaker later that day.  “How do you propose to restrict testing, once the means to test is available?”

“They can’t,” he replied.  “They must not.”

Ah.  Of course.  They must not – I will pass that along.

Five years later, it is not GWAS but whole exome sequencing and whole genome sequencing providing all the buzz at conferences.  Solving the diagnostic odyssey!  Revolutionizing cancer treatment!  Ushering in an era of personalized medicine!  It’s very exciting.  Prenatal testing is rarely mentioned, and then only in passing – while prognosticators sing happy songs of a not-so-far-off day when every baby will be sequenced at birth.

Sequenced at birth?  Will it even be necessary?  Maybe Mom and Dad have baby’s DNA already, on a hard drive or a memory stick or downloaded onto their cell phones along with the ultrasound pics.

This is not the genome sequencing story you are seeing in the papers or the blogs.  It’s not what researchers are excited about.  The ones we hear are all about science journalists getting their DNA decoded and setting off on odysseys of self-discovery that involve hours of consultation with clinical and academic superstars who donate their time. We hear about kids with strange constellations of symptoms finding answers after years of disappointment.  Those are heartwarming tales: anecdotal and difficult to imagine at scale, but hopeful and exciting nonetheless.  But there is another theme playing, in a minor key, and I hear it faintly, hidden beneath the violins and the trumpets.

I hear it, an unspoken question, when we debate the utility of genomic information.  What does to mean to say that information is actionable? (Prevention? Treatment? Cure?  Prenatally, there is only Yes or No.)  Can patients handle uncertainty?  (And what will we lose, when pregnancies are terminated just to be on the safe side?)  Doesn’t everyone have the right to know what is in their own DNA? (The information is available – why not use it?  What could possibly go wrong?)

Whatever tests are available postnatally will find their way into prenatal use.  The gateway technologies – PGD, cell-free fetal DNA testing – are in place. And there is no use saying, “they can’t, they won’t, they shouldn’t” because they can and they will – and sometimes they should.  There will be good uses too: success stories and disasters averted.  A blanket “no” is not an option, and granting anyone authority to pick and choose which uses are worthwhile vests altogether too much power in the hands of any one person, or profession, or bureaucratic entity.

The same tests can be done before or after birth, but the experience is entirely different.  Uncertainty after birth is an opportunity.  The least useful information is that which will absolutely come true, no matter what you do.  Uncertainty before birth is a crisis.  Anyone who has ever discussed a variant of uncertain significance with a pregnant mother can tell you that.  But what are the chances there will be developmental delay?  Are you certain that the heart will be affected? How sure are you that this means anything?  Not nearly sure enough.  Please understand that.

In general, notions of genetic determinism increase the likelihood that genomic testing will have negative consequences.  Fatalistic attitudes about the power of genes could lead people to overestimate the meaning of elevated risks and underestimate the meaning of reduced risks.  Anxiety, stress, missed mammograms – you have heard this before.  Shrug.  People are grown ups.  They will figure this out.  Information is power.

But we are in a whole new universe trying to reconcile underpowered and often misunderstood predictive testing in the context of prenatal use.  So please, in telling tales of all the wonderful things that genome sequencing will do, save space for a mention of what it cannot do.  Make sure they understand that there are great wide cracks in our crystal ball.  Do not oversell the value of genotype in the absence of phenotype.  Remember that in the end neither researchers nor physicians nor genetic counselors will dictate how this new technology will be used.  Others will make that call, and we will be in the choir, singing songs of praise laced with sorrow.

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Kellogg’s Complaint

Improper kinds of food in the stomach and intestines, will, in this excessively irritable state of the system, cause nocturnal emissions……Farinaecous foods, properly prepared, is incomparably the best aliment for such a sufferer.….

– from A Lecture to Young Men (1838) by Sylvester Graham, Inventor of Graham Crackers

I study the history of genetics because it provides insight into the practice and ethos of genetic counseling. The historical perspective helps me understand why I do what I do. But I also love studying history because of its quirky recesses and unsuspected intersections of historical trajectories. Like  the common thread of eugenics that runs through the histories of masturbation, breakfast cereal, and vasectomy.

Most scholars point to the early 18th century as the beginning of the Western World’s repulsion/fascination with masturbation. In about 1712, an anonymous author published a pamphlet titled Onania; or The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered …. (the title goes on for another 30 words or so) that describes the physical and psychological toll taken on those who engaged in what was politely called “the solitary vice,” as well as advice on how to treat the newly-minted medical condition.  Onania appeared in multiple editions throughout Europe and the United States. Over the next two centuries numerous similar publications followed , all  variations on the same theme, i.e. men and women needed to be saved from the debilitating effects of this evil practice (WARNING: This video link is somewhat risqué).

Some of the great minds of Western history weighed in on self-stimulation, such as Immanuel Kant (he is the father of autonomy, after all), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and of course Sigmund Freud. Richard Wagner, the great German composer and anti-Semite, foreshadowed future connections between eugenics and masturbation when he blamed the degeneracy of Jews on their supposed frequent practice of “self-pollution.” Some authors recommended extreme physical measures to prevent masturbation (WARNING: this link is not for the weak of heart or those who might be offended by unusual paraphernalia). Christine O’Donnell is just one of the lesser lights in a long and eclectic line of anti-masturbationists.

In America, one of the most committed anti-masturbationists was John Harvey Kellogg, a respected surgeon who believed that a vegetarian diet and vigorous exercise promoted physical and emotional health. Kellogg was particularly concerned that sex, including sexual relations between husband and wife , was detrimental to health and well-being (all of his 42 children were adopted or foster. He and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and proudly spoke of their lack of a sexual relationship). The most debilitating sexual behavior was masturbation, which, according to Kellogg,  could be identified by any of 39 signs such as general debility, early signs of consumption, premature and defective development, failure of mental capacity, love of solitude, unnatural boldness, mock piety, paralysis, and eating clay, slate pencils, plaster, and chalk.

For Kellogg, the solution to the masturbation problem was simple – a healthy diet and active lifestyle.  Kellogg concocted various foods with the aim of promoting health and preventing masturbation. Granola was one of his earlier attempts. Eventually, Kellogg, along with his brother Will, developed what they felt was the perfect health food – flaked dry cereal, what we know today as Kellogg’s Cornflakes. The Kellogg brothers served cornflakes at their exclusive Sanitarium in Battle Creek to well-heeled clients  – along with a daily serving of yogurt administered to both ends of their clients’ digestive tracts. One bowl of cornflakes in the morning and Voila!  not only will you be healthy, you will become master of your own domain.

Concerned as he was with individual purity, it is not surprising that Kellogg was interested in racial purity. In 1906 (the same year his brother Will founded what would eventually become the Kellogg Cereal company), he established the Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek. The Foundation, one of the key eugenic centers in the United States, sponsored 3 conferences on race betterment, collected eugenic family histories, and worked with other eugenics organizations around the country.

From here the story heads south to the state reformatory for youthful offenders in Jeffersonville, Indiana where Dr. Harry Sharp presided as the institution’s medical superintendent. The aptly named Dr. Sharp is generally regarded as the father of vasectomy. Sharp honed his surgical skills on the reformatory’s young men among whom masturbation was presumably a common occurrence, a behavior that did not sit well with the medical superintendent. As Sharp tells it “…the story of my first operation in October, 1899. A boy 19 years old came to me and asked he be castrated, as he could not resist the desire to masturbate….I did the operation [vasectomy, not castration]…..In two month’s time he came to me and told me he had ceased to masturbate and that he was all right… Three months after that operation he made satisfactory advances in the school. This was true practically of every man operated on; every man who has ceased to masturbate has assigned the same reason: practically every man sleeps better, feels better and has a better appetite.” Sharp went on to perform another 175 vasectomies between 1899 and 1907 “solely for the purpose of relief from the habit of masturbation.”

Sharp, like many of his contemporaries, became interested in eugenics.  From his viewpoint in a penal institution, he saw a world overcrowded with indiscriminately breeding mental and physical defectives: “The class of individuals is very prolific, from the fact that in the matter of sexuality, as in everything else, they know of no self-restraint. They indulge their selfish lust, ab libitum, with no thought whatsoever  as to what the result may be…..They simply know that they want gratification, and gratification they are going to have.” Sharp wanted to curtail reproduction among those with defective germ plasm.  After dismissing alternative approaches like marriage restriction laws, castration, and segregation, he championed vasectomy  as the cure for eugenic degradation because, in his view, the procedure was quick and easy to perform, had no serious side effects, did not hamper a man’s pursuit of life, liberty or happiness, and “it is endorsed by the persons subjected to it.” Sharp performed 456 eugenic vasectomies between 1899 and 1908. Note that Indiana did not enact a mandatory sterilization law until 1907; in 1909, Indiana governor Thomas Marhsall ordered a moratorium on sterilizations (In an odd historical connection to another well-known consumer products company, the reformatory eventually became a factory for Colgate-Palmolive).

It is easy to dismiss Kellogg as a, well, flake, and Sharp as a narrow-minded crank. Yet in many ways society has benefited from both men (though not in the ways they intended). Neither man fits neatly into labels like eugenicist or eccentric. They were complex men who were  products of their complicated times. Eugenics, anti-masturbation preaching, health foods, and vasectomy were all “in the air” in the late 19th century, and it is not surprising that their paths should criss-cross.

There is an ironic modern twist to the end of this tale. The state of Washington recently enacted legislation granting licensure to genetic counselors. In completing my license application, I was required to affirm that I have never been convicted of “frotteurism.”  I have never been accused or convicted of any crime but I could not honestly answer the question because I didn’t know the meaning of frotteurism, so I looked it up: the practice of touching or rubbing against the clothed body of another person in a crowd as a means of obtaining sexual gratification. All those bowls of cornflakes and graham crackers from my childhood finally paid off.

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Does History Shape Society’s Attitude Towards Genetics?

I visited D.C. as an undergraduate student and spent a majority of my time wandering around various Smithsonian museums.  I got to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Kermit the frog, and Apollo 11 artifacts.  There was one exhibit that left a lasting impression on me which was the Deadly Medicine:  Creating The Master Race exhibit at the Holocaust museum.

DEADLY MEDICINE: CREATING THE MASTER RACE

From 1933 to 1945, Nazi Germany carried out a campaign to “cleanse” German society of individuals viewed as biological threats to the nation’s “health.” Enlisting the help of physicians and medically trained geneticists, psychiatrists, and anthropologists, the Nazis developed racial health policies that began with the mass sterilization of
“genetically diseased” persons and ended with the near annihilation of European Jewry.

To relate this history, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has assembled objects, photographs, documents, and historic film footage from European and American collections and presents them in settings evoking medical and scientific environments. Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race provokes reflection on the continuing attraction of biological utopias that promote the possibility of human perfection. From the early twentieth-century international eugenics movements to present-day dreams of eliminating inherited disabilities
through genetic manipulation, the issues remain timely.”  (http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/traveling/details/index.php?type=current&content=deadly_medicine)

The Genetics Revolution seems to focus so much on the future that we forget about the past.  Who are we to say the past does not affect us on some level?

Eugenics is, unfortunately, real.  Is this why so many people are concerned about The Genetics Revolution?

I know eugenics is a very sensitive subject but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.   I think it is important for us to explore the history of genetics and the impact it has had on society.  I don’t know about you, but I have met several people who immediately assume genetic counselors encourage some form of eugenics.

Do you ever feel like in a sense the past is holding us back in terms of the public fully accepting The Genetics Revolution?

The reason why I’m bringing this up is because this exhibit will be visiting my town for a few months.  I hope to do a follow-up post about it from the perspective of a genetic counselor.  I hadn’t even started to apply to genetic counseling programs when I first saw this exhibit.

I also see this as an opportunity to educate the public about misconceptions that might be out there about genetic counseling.  There has been a lot of buzz about this exhibit.  I’m open to any suggestions as to how I can use this exhibit as a platform to educate the public and to increase awareness in genetics.

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Comments?

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