About my neck was hung.
This heart within me burns
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.
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.