Gene Expression

None dare call it eugenics!

There is some buzz recently about a lawmaker in Louisiana, John LaBruzzo, who is proposing to pay poor women to be sterilized. His logic seems naively reminiscent of Thomas Malthus. It any case, I will admit that I’m generally skeptical of the efficacy of these sorts of programs. But I think government sponsored eugenical projects are I think besides the point and miss the bigger picture.

2 years ago I reviewed a paper by Armand Leroi, The future of neo-eugenics. 2 years is ages in genome-time; it keeps getting cheaper. Notwithstanding the current low returns on investment in the attempts to ascertain the genetic components underlying many complex traits such as schizophrenia, there are still plenty of large effect traits which tests can pick up. And they are getting cheaper and cheaper.

Combined with the legality of abortion, and facts such as the very high rates of termination for fetuses which come up positive for something like Down Syndrome, I think there is something to talk about. This isn’t because the government is demanding that these women abort their fetuses. They’re making a quality of life choice. Granted, one can contend that a human born with Down Syndrome leads a relatively unfulfilled life, so it need not be framed as a self-interested choice on the part of a woman and her partner. But this presupposes a normative outlook about what the Good Life is. Whose lives are not worth living after all? Whose miseries are too great to take breath? Most people in the United States might officially give precedence to the will of god, but in practical day to day reality is the choice of individual humans.

Right now the number of Down Syndrome children is actually relatively stable. Later age of median pregnancy means that more women are giving birth to these children, even though most women who test positive abort. And right now most women who are tested tend to be older as well. But in the near future reproductive choice, and our standards as to who is Good Enough to live, will be put into a much sharper focus. Screening technologies will become cheaper and efficacious to the point of triviality. The ROI will also increase as we know more and more about the genetic factors which presuppose individuals toward particular traits. Note my relatively disease-free terminology here. Right now we thinking of genetic screening primarily in the context of disease, but note that there is some ambiguity to what a disease is on the margins, and, tests produced originally to ascertain susceptibilities to disease can easily to utilized to check for a host of phenotypes. The tools and techniques of cosmetic surgery are simply a subset of those of reconstructive surgery.

John LaBruzzo is notable only for his relatively impolitic tack on these issues. It is easy to hold the likes of him up as the poster child for the new eugenics and what good people of Moral Fiber and Correct Thought should abhor, but he’s really a marginal outlier. Genetic decisions will be made in the bedroom well before they ever get to the boardroom or legislature. They will be made through the collective choices of many individuals, not through government fiat. At least for now.* Eugenical thought is bubbling in the background and suffusing the Zeitgeist. No one dare call it eugenics. It is “personal genomics.” The possible connection to reproductive choices are left unstated. Additionally, most Americans are wary of eugenics because of its associations with race and class, particularly the intersection. LaBruzzo is being called a racist naturally, and he might very well be. But eugenical thoughts are easier to express when directed at whites of a different class or culture who are acceptably Otherized. Here’s the moderate liberal blogger Kevin Drum who works for Mother Jones magazine, Sarah Palin Unplugged:

I don’t even feel right making snarky jokes about this stuff anymore. This campaign has gone seriously off the rails. I’ve never seen anything like it, but everyone is still nattering on as if this is business as usual. If it is, though, we’ve already entered the world of Idiocracy and we might as well all just give up and enjoy our super-size Slurpees while we can.

Idiocracy is of course a film predicated on dysgenic dynamics. Sarah Palin is notably fecund, as are her children it seems. You can connect the dots here. In private conversation I’ve heard plenty of people who would never express worry about the rising tide of color rant about the fertility of “white trash.”

I don’t really grant that the “new eugenics” enabled through personal genomics will be very controversial at all among White People, because I think it will be used disproportionately by White People. It will be bracketed into family planning, which is good, not eugenics, which is bad. I don’t even think that disparate impact on racial minorities will be that big a bar to the new eugenics. Consider:

The proportion of all abortions performed for white women decreased from 45 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 2004, while the proportion for Hispanics increased from 16 percent to 22 percent and the proportion for black women rose from 35 percent to 37 percent.

Around 70% of Americans are non-Hispanic white, but only 1/3 of fetuses being aborted are of non-Hispanic white women. Some pro-life groups try to exploit white guilt and flip the statistics into an argument for genocide against black people. My own impression though is that White People treat these statistics with benign neglect; reproductive rights trump race.

Here is a prominent evolutionary thinker writing about eugenics a few years back:

…First, I noticed only fleeting references to eugenics, and they were disparaging. In the 1920s and 30s, scientists from the political left as well as right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous — though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, even under the license granted by a book like this, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change. Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from ‘ought’ to ‘is’ and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed and dogs for herding skill, why on earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as ‘These are not one-dimentional abilities’ apply equally to cows, horses and dogs, and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, sixty years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what is the moral difference between breeding for musical ability, and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or, why is it acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers, but not breed them? I can think of some answers, and they are good ones which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

This is of course Richard Dawkins.

* Many welcome universal healthcare because it implies socialized responsibility. But the flip-side of that is some element of socialized decision-making. After all, those who pay for a procedure or treatment often feel like they should have a voice in various decisions which lead to the expenditure of their resources. I suspect you should make a particular case by alluding to public health and hygiene.

Comments

  1. #1 Romeo Vitelli
    September 27, 2008

    The relationship between genetics and environmental factors is far too complex to be caught by simple genetic tests. More value could be gained by providing all expectant mothers with good prenatal, perinatal and post-natal care than by subjecting them to genetic tests which may or may not catch problems before they develop. The main danger of eugenics doesn’t lie in undesirables being born so much as allowing a relatively narrow segment of society define who should have the right to breed.

  2. #2 Tod
    September 27, 2008

    “70% of Americans are non Hispanic white, but only 1/3 of fetuses being aborted are of* non-Hispanic white women”

    Maybe I have got it wrong, but as read it’s implying that
    the women in both groups should have more or less the same rates of abortion as their proportion of the population in the figures that are given, and that all other things are equal.

    It strikes me that the proportion of women who are of childbearing age in each group ought to be taken into account.

    *(in the sense of being carried by I assume)

  3. #3 Left_Wing_Fox
    September 28, 2008

    I don’t know. I think the big problem with Eugenics has always been the specter of coercion, not of individual choice. The true horrors of the Eugenics movement were all issues of the state making choices about the reproductive futures of individuals, or attempting to eliminate peoples completely through genocide and ethnic cleansing. It has also been so throughly tied to racism that the two are almost inseparably intwined in many people’s minds.

    One thing I find interesting is just how much more prevalent the debate is about medical choices in the US than in Canada. I think the individual responsibility for medical bills in the US (Either in higher payments, higher premiums, or risk of losing coverage) causes a much greater economic pressures to encourage these sorts of eugenic choices. After all, if the parent is completely responsible for the medical bills of the child in the first 18 years of life, isn’t there much higher pressure to ensure that the child will be free of serious genetic problems that might require expensive medical care?

    Ultimately, I care little about the individual eugenic choices made by families, as long as those choices are made on personal conviction, rather that state coercion. I think the varied individual morality on these issues would eliminate the risk of the eugenic extermination of portions of the population, and ultimately make the eugenic question a moot point from the societal scale.

  4. #4 razib
    September 28, 2008

    The relationship between genetics and environmental factors is far too complex to be caught by simple genetic tests.

    your stupid or used to the toleration of vacuous contentions. 90% of fetuses which are positive for DS are aborted. so no, you’re wrong.

    It strikes me that the proportion of women who are of childbearing age in each group ought to be taken into account.

    yes, that makes sense. so if you don’t want me to rip your head off in the comments, don’t just offer the corrective, consider looking up the data and crunching the numbers yourself! it took me 1 minute to find the census page which allowed me to calculate that ~55% of the women in the age range of 15-45 are non-hispanic white. less than 5 minutes of work total. still contributes to the overall point that colored women have a disproportionate number of abortions.

  5. #5 razib
    September 28, 2008

    Ultimately, I care little about the individual eugenic choices made by families, as long as those choices are made on personal conviction, rather that state coercion.

    what about sex-selective abortions which skew ratios? (in the USA i suspect there’d be a female preference actually)

  6. #6 Romeo Vitelli
    September 28, 2008

    “your stupid or used to the toleration of vacuous contentions. 90% of fetuses which are positive for DS are aborted. so no, you’re wrong.”

    My point is that prenatal tests are not as all-important as the advocates make them out to be. The fact that certain highly specific diseases can be caught prenatally doesn’t mean that all of them can. Prenatal factors, environmental influences and epigenetics play a role as well. Better to spend the money on providing good prenatal care to mothers who don’t get it than to assume that eugenics will save us all.

  7. #7 razib
    September 28, 2008

    The fact that certain highly specific diseases can be caught prenatally doesn’t mean that all of them can.

    this a vacuous assertion. i stated in the post:
    “Notwithstanding the current low returns on investment in the attempts to ascertain the genetic components underlying many complex traits such as schizophrenia, there are still plenty of large effect traits which tests can pick up. ”

    why would you believe that because i stated plenty of large effect traits exist which tests can pick up i would then extrapolate that all of them can be picked up? your point is totally irrelevant because no one would derive the latter from the former.

    comments should add-value and engage the content of the post. not pretend the post is something it isn’t so as to make true but trivial points.

    the stuff about prenatal care is also irrelevant. it isn’t a choice between selective abortions and prenatal care. the former will probably be a minimal marginal cost in the near future so it would not preclude the allocation of resources to all the other aspects of prenatal health.

  8. #8 Tod
    September 28, 2008

    I hardly dare say this but in order of importance:-

    (1) Even within the 55% the age structure is different enough to make a non-trivial difference. Meaning the distribution of young and presumably more sexually active women will not be the same within the two populations. It is obvious from the 15% of non Hispanic white women that were dropped from the original comparison on the grounds of being not childbearing age. Considering that from age 45 to death is going to average approximately >30 years for a woman the nHw population is going to have a lot more in the 35 to 39 and 40 to 44. I would venture to guess that women in this age group are less likely to require an abortion than 16 to 20 or 21 to 25 year olds who will be much less common in the non Hispanic whites.

    (2) (Access to healthcare information and hence contraception may be far less among immigrants, which is something that might lead one to expect the number of abortions to seem be relatively low in the Non Hispanic whites by comparison. (I don’t know enough about how the abortion pill is used to know if it lowers the STATISTICAL number of abortions, I am sure its proponents would say so, I feel the effect would be felt in the same pattern as contraception being more common among the nHw).

    (3) Some sexual behaviour can reasonably be said to be more likely to require an abortion and it is more common in urban areas, where a lesser proportion of nHw live. I cant quantify it though.

    (4) This is a touchy subject but here goes; white trash to me means Europeans. A part of the non Hispanic white figure in the census consists of people who are not of European ancestry, eg Middle Easterners. Any estimate of the percentage would be speculative in the absence of data.

    (5) Even more touchy subject; some of the non Hispanic white women may have been aborting, for whatever reason, non non Hispanic white embryos

  9. #9 razib
    September 28, 2008

    1) stop speculating and use the GSS, i’m not going to do your work for you. the next comment better have something besides your suppositions. here is the link for the GSS:
    http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss06

    2) read the links before you express wide ranging opinions. from the link on abortion and race:
    During that period, the proportion of abortions obtained by women younger than 20 dropped steadily, falling from 33 percent in 1974 to 17 percent in 2004. For those younger than 18, it fell from 15 percent of all abortions in 1974 to 6 percent in 2004. At the same time, the proportion of abortions obtained by women in their 20s increased from 50 percent to 57 percent, and the share done for women age 30 and older rose from 18 percent to 27 percent.

    3) A part of the non Hispanic white figure in the census consists of people who are not of European ancestry, eg Middle Easterners. yes, on the order of 1% of the total population, or 1/70 of the non-hispanic population. you can do math, therefore you can intuit that the distortion is not going to be large. you can look up the proportion in the census website:
    http://www.census.gov/

    4) I would venture to guess that women in this age group are less likely to require an abortion than 16 to 20 or 21 to 25 year olds who will be much less common in the non Hispanic whites.

    stop using imprecise terms like “much less common.” go to the census website and find the exact percentages. include them in your comment. i know it will take you less than 5 minutes because that’s how long it took me last time i did it.

    critiques of a quantitative nature which utilize qualitative methodology are USELESS.

  10. #10 Thomas Mailund
    September 28, 2008

    A modest proposal, eh? ;)

  11. #11 Josh
    September 28, 2008

    A case could be made that, whatever the position on reproductive genetic technology, the result will be eugenics. It all depends what you call eugenics.

    If eugenics involves that which results in enhancement of the human race, then the use of these reproductive technologies may be called eugenics (yet, so too could choosing who to have children with).

    If eugenics involves government interference into reproductive freedom, then banning technologies like human cloning or genetic engineering may be called eugenics.

  12. #12 Left_Wing_Fox
    September 28, 2008

    what about sex-selective abortions which skew ratios? (in the USA i suspect there’d be a female preference actually)

    If you’re referring to China, there too you see a coercive element at play with the One Child policy that adds pressure to existing cultural values. In regions where the legal rights of men and women are roughly equal, and the cultural conventions (Such as a keeping the husband’s family name) are more flexible, the benefits of one sex over another on a societal level is not likely as strong.

    The question becomes whether the societal interest in sex-selection will be greater than natural variation of genetic and environmental factors. There was an interview a while back on Quirks and Quarks dealing with the role of the mother’s diet during conception on the sex of the baby: here’s the Article.

  13. #13 razib
    September 28, 2008

    In regions where the legal rights of men and women are roughly equal, and the cultural conventions (Such as a keeping the husband’s family name) are more flexible, the benefits of one sex over another on a societal level is not likely as strong.

    you didn’t really address the question then. in india (punjab) and south korea there isn’t state coercion. it’s social norms (though in south korea it is now flipping to female preference, which is what happened in japan around 1990). cultural equality between the sexes is not the norm in most parts of the world.

  14. #14 DuWayne
    September 28, 2008

    It was very exciting to see this post. I really think this is an increasingly important discussion to have, but one that just leaps into hysterics because of the mere mention of eugenics. Eugenics is not a four letter word. Hell, my partner and I had to consider this ourselves, when an idiot nurse gave us the impression that our now nine month old, was at a significantly elevated risk for DS. Also being the parents of a six year old with severe ADHD, it wouldn’t have been a question – we would have chosen to terminate.

    I do have to disagree with the notion that prenatal testing won’t be useful with disorders such as schizophrenia. It is exceedingly likely there is a genetic component and as we learn more about how such disorders are triggered, it isn’t infeasible for expecting mothers to be offered choices with that too. Such as the choice of either committing to doing everything one can to avoid those triggers for their child, accepting their child may well end up schizophrenic or terminating because it’s too risky.

    Considering the leaps and bounds being made in both genetics and neurology, I have a lot of confidence that it’s just a matter of time and research. And really, this is why the conversation is so important. It is reasonable to assume that neurological disorders will eventually be figured out genetically. It is also reasonable to assume that rather than the options being simply terminate or live with the risk, actually “fixing” the problem may become possible.

    Ultimately, I am all for personal autonomy. I do not believe in taking away the rights of parents to be to terminate for whatever reasons they might deem compelling, even if that reason is because their fetus carries a significant risk for this or that neurological disorder. Nor would I want the government involved in even encouraging parents to abort or not to abort. But I do have issues with the notion that society or even many families, would be better off without a great many of these disorders.

    I certainly know a lot of people with debilitating or somewhat/sometimes debilitating neurological disorders (including myself) who happen to really appreciate the way their minds work.

    So I tend to think that this is one of the more important discussions that most (americans anyways) people refuse to engage. Unfortunately, hysterics seems to rule the day whenever it comes up.

  15. #15 David Marjanović
    September 28, 2008

    in the USA i suspect there’d be a female preference actually

    Why?

  16. #16 razib
    September 28, 2008

    the spotty american data suggests that in the general public where sex-preference exists among couples it is biased toward females in the USA like japan. main exceptions are asian immigration communities.

  17. #17 Left_Wing_Fox
    September 28, 2008

    you didn’t really address the question then. in india (punjab) and south korea there isn’t state coercion.

    In that case, I must be misunderstanding the question and I’ll try again. “What about sex-selective abortions which skew ratios?” Does this concern me? Not particularly outside of a coercive situation. It’s not something I’m comfortable with personally, but I don’t see an overriding societal problem resulting from such a practice that would push me to promote government restriction against individual reproductive choices.

  18. #18 Julie Stahlhut
    September 28, 2008

    LaBruzzo is not suggesting eugenics. He’s suggesting “eu-economics”, although he’s appealing to his constituency’s collective gut feelings in the same way as he would if he had openly accused poor people of being genetically deficient. Nowhere has he made a case that poverty is genetically determined. And, if it’s true that lower-income people rear more children to adulthood than do higher-income people, it’s the lower-income people who have higher fitness, although even this interpretation becomes complicated by using the terminology of evolutionary genetics to address a socioeconomic question.

    BTW, how do people like LaBruzzo propose to encourage higher-income people to have more children? Small payouts? Tax breaks? Will they cover the cost of a bigger house, and the expense of putting more kids through college? The cost of day care, or reimbursement of half the family’s income when one parent leaves the workforce to care for a larger family? People who are truly wealthy don’t need to even consider this kind of thing when planning their families. On the other hand, people who have college degrees but are teetering on the brink of the middle class are not going to suddenly decide to have three more kids for $1000 per year per child.

    Maybe there is a lesson here about eugenics, but in LaBruzzo’s story, I see more of a lesson about demagoguery and the incitement of class prejudice.

  19. #19 Kosmo
    September 29, 2008

    The most interesting thing to me about this subject, and the thing which I think most people overlook, is that this particular form of eugenics (designer children), whether right or wrong, is going to happen on a large scale somehwere. It might be Japan, or it might be Dubois, or it might be among the richest populations in India– but it will start to happen somewhere in the next decade. Once genetic-disease screening of embryos becomes widespread, it is a simple, simple thing to go that next step. If you have five or ten blastocystes in a petri dish, why not choose to implant the one that happens to have Kibra? Or that happens to have the DRD4 allele you favor? Or that happens to be have the best combination of a whole suite of genes which will produce a child who is tall, and beautiful, and brilliant. (To the extent, anyway, that the parents have the genes to produce such a child) Is such a thing even wrong? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but the important thing is that you can be sure that SOME people won’t think it is wrong. And those people will have children with enriched gene sets. Even if it is just one or two populations that does this, and even if the rest of the world rejects the practice at first, it is not difficult to imagine how the competitive landscape might begin to change, so that eventually, within two or three generations, it will be obvious to everyone that a population NEEDS to do this, or else accept being inferior.

  20. #20 DuWayne
    September 29, 2008

    David Marjanović -

    Because in the U.S. “everybody” loves little girls.

    Unfortunately, a lot of Americans want little girls, because they see them as something akin to having a pretty doll. It is so much more fun to dress and accessorize girls, than it is with boys. My own partner falls into this to a degree, though she is very content with our two boys and accepts that she will never actually have girls of her own (or any more kids, as I got snipped after our second was born last December).

    It is not as though this instantly makes all such parents bad parents, but it does create a seriously skewed motivation for having kids. In effect, making children more like an object to be prettied up and shown off, like any other bauble one would display. Definitely not the best start to a human life.

  21. #21 windy
    September 29, 2008

    After all, if the parent is completely responsible for the medical bills of the child in the first 18 years of life, isn’t there much higher pressure to ensure that the child will be free of serious genetic problems that might require expensive medical care?

    That is probably part of the reason. ‘Only’ half of Down pregnancies are aborted in Finland (but abortions are also less prevalent overall).

  22. #22 Bexley
    September 30, 2008

    @ Kosmo

    Not sure I agree with your comments on designer babies.

    “If you have five or ten blastocystes in a petri dish, why not choose to implant the one that happens to have Kibra? Or that happens to have the DRD4 allele you favor? Or that happens to be have the best combination of a whole suite of genes which will produce a child who is tall, and beautiful, and brilliant.

    This would be fairly difficult if you think about it. Say you want to select a gene from one parent to screen out (or select for your baby – the maths is the same). Doing this means you have to get rid of half your embryos. For each additional gene that you screen out (or in) halves the remaining number of embryos.

    Selecting for just 5 genes means you’d need 32 embryos on average! Trying to select more would be even worse. Therefore trying to select for a large number of genes simultaneously is impractical.

    Another option would be to genetically engineer the embryo – however this is a long way away from happening in terms of technology.

  23. #23 DuWayne
    September 30, 2008

    Bexley -

    While I might argue that it is unlikely to happen in the next decade, I have no doubt that it will be possible at some point.

  24. #24 Spaulding
    October 1, 2008

    Granted, one can contend that a human born with Down Syndrome leads a relatively unfulfilled life, so it need not be framed as a self-interested choice on the part of a woman and her partner.

    Based on the handful of Down Syndrome folks that I’ve known, that could be a pretty difficult assertion to support, unless one has a very, very specific definition of “unfulfilled.”

    However, why should someone be dismissive about a “self-interested choice on the part of a woman and her partner?” Deliberate parenthood is kind of a zero sum game: if you intend to have two specific children, then you actively decide not to have any of the quadrillions of other children that you could form with other gametes and other partners. The interest of the potential child is something effectively cancelled from the equation by the interests of each of those quadrillions of children, and you’re left with factors like health concerns, economics, and timing.

    Unfortunately, the deciding factor is emotion, an unreliable criterion which is even worse in legislative form.

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