Tag Archives: medical genetics

Selective Amnesia, Part 3: We Are Judged On Our History

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.

 

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Selective Amnesia, Part 2: Guardians of The Gene Pool

A few weeks ago in this space, drawing on the research of others, I wrote about how geneticists have created a collective memory of eugenics in which they put all the “bad” eugenics behind us after World War II and moved on to the enlightened modern era. I discussed how in fact notable historical figures Franz Kallmann, William Allan, and C. Nash Herndon actively espoused eugenic policies from the 1940s through the 1960s. Here, in Part 2, I highlight more connections between the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) and eugenics to make it clear that support for eugenic policies and beliefs was common among geneticists. Kallmann, Allan, and Nash were not a lone trio of eugenic stragglers who were still mired in a questionable ethical past.

Let’s start by following the money. Post-WWII geneticists may have claimed to reject eugenics, but they had no problem with accepting money from eugenically oriented funding sources. As Nathaniel Comfort notes in The Science of Human Perfection, eugenic organizations were tapped to fund the establishment of the American Journal of Human Genetics. Part of the funding  for the journal was arranged by the eugenicist Frederick Osborn through the Association for Research in Human Heredity, which was formerly the Eugenics Research Association of the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, NY. The remaining funds were supplied by Wickliffe Draper’s Pioneer Fund, established in 1937 to be one of the primary funders of eugenic research (it continued to support racist and eugenic research into the 21st century). There was even discussion of using a picture of Charles Davenport or Barbara Burks (a researcher  in psychiatry who spent several years at the Eugenics Record Office and who has a fascinating biography) for the journal’s frontispiece. During the 1950s, Charles M. Goethe, another wealthy eugenics benefactor, sent small annual checks to the ASHG treasurer to purchase gift memberships for students with high IQs and thus good breeding stock “while he [the student] accepts the responsibility of fathering at least 3 children.” 

Post-WWII geneticists took the racist and elitist policies espoused by the most notorious conservative eugenicists and transformed them into a crusade dedicated to reducing human suffering and ensuring the “health of the gene pool.”  Instead of vitriol directed at immigrants and their “defective germ plasm,” geneticists fretted that the human gene pool was degenerating, i.e., our genetic load, as the result of a trifecta of forces including existing mutations that were already part of the human breeding pool, new mutations induced by ionizing radiation due primarily to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the relaxation of natural selection in humans due to improvements in medical care and living conditions that allowed people with illness-predisposing mutations to survive and reproduce. They sometimes argued that the very future of humanity hinged on keeping the gene pool healthy, along with cost-savings from eliminating mutant genes. Even James Neel, a strong critic of conservative eugenics, titled his 1994 autobiography Physician To The Gene Pool. If the gene pool wasn’t sick or threatened, presumably it would not need a physician to tend to it.

Of the three factors alleged to be threatening to increase the genetic load, medical geneticists could exercise some measure of control over the existing mutation frequency. They argued that if parents were properly counseled then high risk couples would refrain from having children with genetic disorders, thus reducing the impact of genetic disease on the population. Conversely, low risk couples would have more children, improving the overall gene pool. You didn’t have to make people refrain from reproduction by force or sterilization. You just need to wisely educate them and let them see the light on their own.

There was widespread support among the genetics community for this reframed and reformulated eugenics. Below are illustrative quotes by other ASHG presidents (some of which come from a 1997 paper by science historian Diane Paul):

Herman Muller (ASHG President, 1949; Nobel Prize Winner, 1946): “It is shown that the only means by which the effects of the genetic load can be lightened permanently and securely is by the coupling of ameliorative techniques, such as medicine, with a rationally directed guidance of reproduction. In other words, the latter procedure is a necessary complement to medicine, and to the other practices of civilization, if they are not to defeat their own purposes, and it is in the end equally as important for our health and well-being as all of them together.

Sheldon Reed (ASHG President 1956): “People of normal mentality who thoroughly understand the genetics of their problems, will behave in the way that seems correct to society as a whole.”

Curt Stern (ASHG President, 1957): “In the course of time…. the control by man of his own biological evolution will become imperative…”

James F. Crow (ASHG President, 1963): “How far should we defend the right of a parent to produce a child that is painfully diseased, condemned to an early death, or mentally retarded?”

Bentley Glass (ASHG President, 1967; President of the American Association for The Advancement of Science, 1969), writing in 1971: “Whether advice or compulsion is to be used by society in these cases would seem to rest with the severity of the condition. If the prospective defect is one that would leave a baby a hopeless imbecile or idiot throughout life and a ward on society, or cause it to be born without limbs, or make it otherwise gravely defective, avoidance of parenthood ought to be mandatory.”

You might argue angels-dancing-on-a-pinhead that these statements are not eugenic philosophies sensu strictu. Maybe you could make a half-convincing argument to that effect. But that sounds like denial to me. Davenport, Harry Laughlin, and the other pre-WWII eugenicists would have recognized and supported any of the above pronouncements.

But let me be clear. This is not a simple story of ethically challenged geneticists pushing an intentionally evil agenda. These were good people from across the political spectrum who believed they were trying to do good for their patients and society. Just like us. And, just like us, they recognized the psychological and emotional impact of genetic disorders on patients and families. As the historian Marion Schmidt notes, Franz Kallmann, former member of the German Society for Racial Hygiene who advocated sterilizing the families of patients with psychiatric disease, urged genetic counselors to understand patients’ “fears and hopes, defenses and rationalizations” and to develop an “empathetic understanding of the motives and capacities of the person who comes for help.” Foreshadowing  21st century calls for genetic counseling to be conducted as a form of psychotherapy, Kallmann viewed genetic counseling as “short-term psychotherapy aimed at reducing anxiety and tension,” albeit with the ultimate goal of producing “a well-planned family [that was] indispensable as a biological, social and cultural unit from a eugenic standpoint and a unique source of pride and stability for the individual.”

I don’t mean to imply that ASHG is or was  ever an unethical, sinister eugenic organization. However, as the primary professional organization for geneticists, ASHG’s history reflects the history of the philosophy, ethics, and practice of medical genetics. As much as we may want to ignore that history and keep it safely behind us, it is embedded, if you will, in the DNA of the profession.

In the third and final part of this series of postings, I will trace these eugenic threads up to current day practice to help us better understand the complicated and at times antagonistic relationship between medical genetics and people with disabilities, their families, and their advocates. 

 

 

 

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What Did You Do This Summer (Genetics Edition)?

As the summer of 2012 starts to fade into cooler evenings, I have been wondering  – like so many summers before – just where it went and how come I did not accomplish any of the tasks I had so confidently laid out for myself back in early June. When I was a boy, on the last day of school summer would open up before me like a vast ocean of free time and then, in the blink of an eye, it was Labor Day and the seas of time had been transformed into a dripping spout of precious minutes. This got me me to thinking  about the history of genetics.  Are summer’s creative doldrums my peculiar affliction? What have other geneticists done during their summers? To satisfy my curiosity, I compiled a list of summer time achievements and events from the history of genetics, culled from my unorganized and arbitrary historical knowledge.

The most important doodle in the history of ideas in the Western world, here displayed on my iPhone cover (made by my talented daughter Emily Singh). The image is modified from the classic image in Darwin’s Notebook D, Transmutation of species (1837-1838) and is the first graphic expression of his branching species theory of evolution. Just above this doodle, Darwin wrote “I think.”

July 1, 1858: The theory of evolution was inconspicuously introduced to the world when the joint papers of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection) were read to about 30 members of the Linnean Society in

London. By all accounts, the papers generated virtually no discussion. Not even a Tweet. Neither Darwin nor Wallace were in attendance. Wallace, who may be the only Englishman unluckier than Pete Best (who was fired as the Beatles’ drummer in the summer of 1962) was off in New Guinea seeking birds of paradise. Darwin was grieving the death of his beloved tenth child, 19 month old Charles Waring Darwin, who very well may have had Down syndrome.

September 2, 1939: German U-boats torpedoed SS Athenia, the first British ship sunk during WWII. More than one thousand survivors were plucked from the icy North Atlantic waters, including Charles Cotterman, who 10 years later would become the founding editor of The American Journal of Human Genetics and the designer of the journal’s original cover (as told in The Science of Human Perfection, my friend Nathaniel Comfort‘s soon to be published book on the history of medical genetics). Ironically, on board the rescue ship City of Flint was one James V. Neel, the great geneticist and founder of the Heredity Clinic at the University of Michigan where Neel and Cotterman collaborated during the 1940s. The summer of 1939 also saw Cuba and the US deny entry to a thousand Jewish refugees aboard the the SS St. Louis, who had escaped the Nazi horrors only to be sent back to Europe. One of the passengers on board was a teenage Arno Motulsky, who would later found the medical genetics department at the University of Washington, and author a classic human genetics textbook and numerous research papers. The story of the SS St. Louis was later told in both film and book as The Voyage of the Damned.

August, 1947Sheldon Reed succeeded Clarence Oliver as the director of the Dight Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. The rest is genetic counseling history.

July 15, 1949: James Neel published his classic paper The Inheritance of Sickle Cell Anemia in Science (actually, the inheritance of sickle cell anemia was first reported 26 years earlier by W. H. Tallifero and J.G. Huck).

July 6, 1957; August 3, 1957; August 30, 1958: R.A. Fisher, the great statistical geneticist and one of the leading architects of the modern theory of evolution published 3 papers (in The British Medical Journal and Nature) claiming that cigarette smoking and lung cancer were genetically linked (“… an error has been made of an old kind, in arguing from correlation to causation”). Fisher’s arguments formed a key component to the tobacco industry’s strategy to deny the health risks of cigarettes. Fisher was paid a small fee to serve as a scientific consultant for the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Standing Committee.  He wrote the papers in response to a paper authored by the British Medical Research Counsel in Lancet in June of 1957 that stated that the recent increases in lung cancer could be largely attributed to cigarette smoking. Fisher strongly denied that the money he was paid could possibly influence his views. Talk about blind spots.

August 20-27, 1958: Jérôme Lejeune first reported the underlying chromosomal basis of Down syndrome at the X [tenth] International Congress of Genetics at McGill University in Montreal. The finding was published 4 months later in January, 1959.

June 26, 2000: US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair jointly announced the completion of the first draft of the human genome.

Well, I guess I don’t have the excuse that geneticists never do anything important during their summers. Next year I will have to get more serious about pursuing my genetic exploits. But, hey, I have nine more months to ponder that.

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