Eugenics, Genetic Counseling, and Jacob

All parents want their children to be happy and healthy. Harriet Washington, in Medical Apartheid,  states that the discovery that many human traits followed a Mendelian pattern of inheritance allows reliable predictions of the outcomes in the child. There are many genetic conditions that a child can inherit from its parents that may be fatal or very detrimental to its quality of life.  Eugenics, as defined by Phillip K. Wilson of Encyclopedia Britannica, is the “selection of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations.” From this definition, it seems that Eugenics may be a scientifically beneficial approach to limit the amount of genetic-based disease in our society. Washington points out that “Eugenicists proposed that society use medical information about disease and trait inheritance to end social ills by encouraging the birth of children with good, healthy and beautiful traits.” In light of this quote, scientists could use knowledge to benefit unborn children so that when born are able to live healthy lives and avoid diseases that their parents may be carrying. With the use of genetic information, parents can be armed with the knowledge to make an informed decision on whether or not to have a child that may fall subject to genetic disease. So why is the practice of eugenics looked upon with disgust? It’s simple. Persons of power, as Washington puts it, “…confused the concept of biological hereditary fitness with those of class and race.”

According to Wilson, eugenics is commonly associated with practices that took place in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. In Wilson’s article, the German government adopted eugenic practices of involuntary sterilization in order to build a master race. Wilson also points out that “…Germany extended its practices far beyond sterilization in efforts to eliminate the Jewish and other non-Aryan populations.” Hitler did not use eugenics to help limit genetic disease but instead as propaganda to galvanize his supporters in his racist efforts. Hitler would not be the only person of power that contributed to eugenics being used as a tool of racist oppression instead of medical benefit.

 Washington points out that Americans were being sterilized as well, as many as 4000 in 1934 alone. In America, 27 states had laws that provided for the “compulsory sterilization” of groups such as the “feebleminded, those on welfare or those with genetic defects.” (Washington) Like the Nazis, the American government officials were requiring sterilizations of groups of people without attaining any form of consent. African-Americans made up a large amount of those who were sterilized through legal means. Washington also explains that outside of the law that there was a common practice of involuntary hysterectomies and the practice was so common in Mississippi that is was referred to as a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Atlanta’s Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit that resulted in the discovery that “…100,000 to 150,000 women had been sterilized using federal funds and over half of these women were black.” Eugenics being used as a tool of oppression against certain classes and races and not as a tool to benefit society as a whole.

After investigating the past crimes committed in the name of eugenics, a thought occurred to me. I thought of genetic counseling and wondered about its relationship with eugenics. In a blog post, authored by Ricki Lewis Ph.D., it is argued that genetic counseling is not a form of eugenics. Lewis explains that genetic counseling includes genetic disease carrier and BRCA mutation testing for potential parents. Carrier gene testing can detect whether or not parents are carriers of hundreds of genetic diseases and advise them on the chances of their potential child inheriting these diseases. Mutant BRCA gene testing identifies if the BRCA genes for DNA repair are altered. If they are, future children would have greatly elevated risks of several cancers. Lewis argues that these types of genetic testing are not a form of eugenics for a simple reason: “…the important descriptor of eugenics is INTENT; that of medical genetic screening and testing is CHOICE.” In other words, genetic counseling differs from eugenics because it allows for informed consent. I agree with Dr. Lewis. The initial reason that eugenics was perverted into what it is known as today, was that people of power attempted to alter society through forced means. Genetic counseling takes the positive aspects of the eugenics and gives parents information in order to properly make a decision on whether or not to have a child. In addition, genetic screening is not mandatory and potential parents must provide informed consent before taking part.

One of the main goals of genetic counseling is to offer information about genetic diseases that would be passed down to children. Knowing this, I considered the children of the Clay’s Ark community in Octavia E. Butler’s Clay’s Ark. Butler describes Jacob as a “catlike” child who was quadruped and “built for speed”. The members of the community have a compulsion to breed children and thus have no interest in preventing the birth of their genetically altered children. However, Rane reacts to the child similar to that of a eugenicist, “What the hell are you doing sitting in the middle of the desert giving birth to monsters and kidnapping people?” Rane clearly believes that the birth of these children should be avoided. The community members have no possible way to control their births because they are controlled by the microorganisms that infect them regarding this matter. Even so, Lupe argues in defense of giving birth to children with the infection,  “Eli says we are preserving humanity. I agree with him. We are.” Butler is extremely talented at posing questions to readers that have no clear answer. Through this dialogue between Rane and Lupe, Butler provoked me to ask several questions of myself. Is Rane right to believe that these children are dangerous to the world and their births should be controlled? Even if the members of Clay’s Ark community could refrain from having children, would they give up their basic human right to reproduce? Would they be willing to give birth to a child that they know will carry the disease? She was able to trap me into thinking like a eugenicist and also a parent. Honestly, I do not know what to think of these questions and I believe that is part of Butler’s genius.

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