Author bio: Liann Jimmons is a public health and pediatric genetic counselor whose work focuses on increasing access to genetic services for patients, and increasing access to the profession for future genetic counselors from historically excluded and exploited backgrounds. She is an active member and mentor in the Minority Genetic Professionals Network, Vice Chair of the NSGC Equity and Inclusion Implementation subcommittee, and a member of the NSGC Podcast subcommittee. Her work is driven by her personal experiences as a Black, Vietnamese, disabled, queer woman.
More and more genetic counselors have taken to social media, especially Twitter, to share their thoughts on incidences of injustice. Most recently, the Roe v. Wade overturn sparked impassioned conversation surrounding reproductive rights. In their defense of abortion, some genetic counselors consciously or unconsciously reminded everyone of the problematic foundations of this profession which grew out of the ideals of cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, nuclear white families.
“It’s just social media, don’t take it so seriously.”
“It’s just social media, no one should take me seriously.”
Both statements most of us have either heard or said before and there was a time where they carried more truth. However, it is willfully ignorant and irresponsible to insist either are still accurate assessments of the impact of social media. Genetic counselors from historically excluded and exploited backgrounds have repeatedly explained how suppositional intentions are not enough to excuse impacts of tangible, enduring harm. Yet, the “unintentionally” ableist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, etc. ideas prevail both on- and offline
After the overturn, #GeneChat was filled with immeasurable sadness and anger at this attack on bodily autonomy and privacy. However, too many were thoughtless when naming whose bodies deserved autonomy and privacy. Woman this, women that, sisters, mothers, aunties, girls, ladies, daughters, wives. Genetic counselors too loudly reminded everyone that this field was built for and by cishet women. Our trans, nonbinary, queer, and gender expansive colleagues, future colleagues, and patients deserved to feel seen, respected, cared for, and safe. But they were effectively excluded.
Shamefully abundant were posts by genetic counselors grieving over the potentially disabled children forced onto the world, reeking of the rotten roots of eugenics in this field. These posts implied disabled folks are inherently unwanted, unloved, and will be unable to live meaningful, fulfilling lives. Disabilities, visible and invisible, are all around us, your colleagues included. The grieving I’m doing is for the patients harmed by their own provider’s ableism. And I grieve for myself and other disabled genetic counselors being told we are less than.
In addition, there were many posts implying all pregnancies conceived from sexual violence should be terminated, from reducing them to reminders of their parents’ trauma to the hypothetical negative impact on society, with one post describing unwanted children as destined to become criminals because they are poor and abused. Pedestaling abortion as solution these greater societal disparities is an example of white feminism. These ideas are coded in racism and classism, and lead to poorer outcomes in already marginalized communities. This is what happens when advocacy is not intersectional.
My simple ask, please be mindful of language on public platforms to avoid unintentionally sending messages favoring eugenics.
Genetic counselors’ intent is not enough anymore and it hasn’t been for a long time. Excuses like, “It was a mistake because… we forgot, we weren’t thinking, it was in the heat of the moment, we’re still learning, we didn’t know, etc.,” send the message, “We forget about or don’t think of people not like us. Our instincts are to protect ourselves and those like us. We have not put in the effort to learn about people not like us.” To effectively address mistakes and prevent them from happening again, learn how to self-reflect and simply apologize without the if’s, and’s, but’s, because’s, or well actually’s.
The rhetoric used in this discussion of reproductive rights triggered a larger, much needed conversation about the language we use in public spaces. Some people may read this and feel overwhelmed, but consider the marginalized folks who can’t not think about these issues because these are our lived experiences. Lastly, a reminder: if there is too much to consider or you don’t feel informed enough, you always have the choice to simply not post.
Since such a small percentage of genetic counselors are even on social media, one might think that our words matter less. In reality, it’s the opposite. To outsiders, the small sliver of our community they’re able to find is interpreted as representative of the whole. If you choose to participate in these spaces identifiable as a genetic counselor, please be more responsible and inclusive in your statements for the sake of us within the profession, those who will enter, and those we serve.
Author’s Note: While I originally was moved to write this piece to advocate for patients, specifically inclusivity in conversations about reproductive rights, I could not speak about the harm exclusivity causes to patients without acknowledging how exclusive practices harm and weaken the genetic counseling community from within. We cannot bring about justice for those we serve or ourselves without fully surrendering the idea that GCs are the exception and completely embracing the painful self-reflection that shows, as a field, we may not always be as progressive as we think. Being thoughtful about our language and inclusivity is just as important for the safety of our patients as it is for each of us.