Gene Expression

Genetic Future has a post which mulls over the idea that not screening for particular diseases is similar to child abuse. I was interested in this last comment:

Naturally there are objections to embryo screening among religious conservatives who believe that inflicting severe disease on children is the will of God – but why does the prospect raise such unease among even the secular community? I share Le Page’s puzzlement on this question, and would invite opponents to lay out any well-reasoned arguments against routine screening in the comments below.

Religious conservatives, particularly Roman Catholics, do have well-reasoned arguments once you grant their premises. But I would like to take a step back and suggest that though reason is the “front side of the house” in this discussion, the real work is being done by intuition in concert with social consensus in the kitchen. I think this is even true for religious conservatives at the end of the day; today some religious couples who receive fertility treatment thank God for their multiple births.

I suggest that the nature of the reasoned arguments will directly track the underlying social consensus. Reasonable arguments which will be very persuasive at time t when procedure x is extant at proportion ~ 0.01 will magically become far more implausible at time t + n when procedure x is extant at proportion ~0.50. The best way to be on the “right side of history” in this sort of discussion isn’t to argue in bioethics journals, it’s to make sure that the cost of the procedure comes down and its marketing makes it seem innocuous, or the inverse if that is your position. Today many younger people assume you have a cell phone, and find it almost rude if you don’t. This had nothing to do with reasoned arguments about the utility of the cell phone, and all to do with market penetration and social expectations.

In any case, in regards to Dr. MacArthur’s original point about how one could posit a reasoned argument against genetic screening by couples if one was not religious, I suspect that skepticism is far more warranted presupposing that secular individual has a liberal political philosophical world-view. By which I mean that individual satisfaction and liberty lay at the heart of their idea of what the ultimate ends of a social & political order should be. On the other hand, if someone is a communitarian there might be all sorts of rationales one could construct based on utilitarian logic where social cohesion was a paramount good.

Comments

  1. #1 Doug Alder
    March 21, 2009

    You point about market penetration and social expectations is a good one however I think it’s perhaps simpler than that unless you count the following as part of your social expectations.

    In the non-scientific community there is a great deal of skepticism about the validity of scientific claims. Further the Right (both religious and political) have done a good job of inculcating a belief that most science today is immoral rather than amoral. So when no-scientific members of the general public are faced with the decision to screen or not screen there is at lease a seed of doubt as to whether they could trust the results. So long as there is doubt about the veracity of the results people are less likely to choose to abort a fetus lest they be wrong.

    Personally, I agree with the question posed in your quote. If you trust the science then failure to screen for devastating genetic diseases is tantamount to child abuse. The real problem here is once again, the failure of the North American (I’m Canadian and it’s just as bad here) to properly educated its citizenry in thew fundamentals of science and rational, logical thought.

  2. #2 razib
    March 21, 2009

    In the non-scientific community there is a great deal of skepticism about the validity of scientific claims.

    but far less skepticism of technology.

  3. #3 deadpost
    March 21, 2009

    Haha. It’s kind of ironic to trust technology more than science claims when it is exactly the former which depends on the latter being true. Especially when the technology they use is a direct result of scientific ideas they are skeptical about.

    Do people have a tendency to be cargo-cultists?

    Is that why we have so many physicians who are creationist?

    It’s as ridiculous as a vegetarian eating a hotdog and denying all claims about how it’s made.

  4. #4 sg
    March 21, 2009

    You make a great point about the skepticism among the scientifically illiterate. Some fault also comes in incompetent reporting. Generally the reporting is so poor that nothing is fully explained. One can almost forgive the readers’ skepticism when the reporting is so vague. If a more concerted effort were made to actually explain things, more people would come around.

  5. #5 jay
    March 22, 2009

    Firstly, I would argue that the ‘social expectation’ is a perfectly normal part of the equation, whether on the scientific or the mythological side. There are an infinite number of risks that we accept, for ourselves and our children, and our evolved sense of group consensus tends to avoid going to extremes. Saftey and freedom are often pulling in different directions, I personally favor the freedom side.

    The concept of government (or religion) managed social engineering the acceptance of ideas is a bit disturbing to me, I don’t see a great deal of difference between “not doing testing is child abuse” and the whole eugenics concept of the 20s and 30s. I have no problem when people chose to avail themselves of the technology, but very uncomfortable with social or (even worse) government pressure to do so.

  6. #6 jay
    March 22, 2009

    In the non-scientific community there is a great deal of skepticism about the validity of scientific claims.

    And I would hope there is a good amount of skepticism WITHIN the community as well. Claims need to be challenged and periodically revisited. Certainly in this area of knowledge, the perception of the influence of genetics has changed markedly over the past few decades. Claims that were ‘well established’ in the 80s are realized to be dead wrong now.

  7. #7 bioIgnoramus
    March 22, 2009

    “In the non-scientific community there is a great deal of skepticism about the validity of scientific claims.” And a pint of piss, I say, to the Global Warmers and the diet-faddists whose idiocies and dishonesties must presumably add to such scepticism.

  8. #8 Joshua Zelinsky
    March 22, 2009

    There’s also a worry in certain groups that this sort of screening will lead to racial eugenics or the like. I’ve talked to a lot of Jews about this sort of thing and for many of them, especially those of Eastern European descent, it is very hard to convince them that this sort of procedure has no similarity at all to anything the Nazis were doing. Given the superficial resemblance and the extreme emotions connected with such issues, the reaction is not surprising. This is probably made all the worse by the presence of many genetic disorders in the Ashkenazic population such as Tay-Sachs (whether or not serious genetic disorders are more common among Askenazim they are very culturally prominent).

  9. #9 jay
    March 22, 2009

    Given the superficial resemblance and the extreme emotions connected with such issues, the reaction is not surprising

    It’s more thant ‘superficial’. The problem with the eugenics movement was NOT that it couldn’t word, we’ve been practicing eugenics with livestock for millenia and it DOES work. The eugenics movement tried to control some ‘conditions’ that were indeed heritable. The problem was that it invoked coercive force with science as the support that made it so deeply offensive. Requirements (as some have proposed) or engineered social pressure are not very different at all.

  10. #10 kurt9
    March 22, 2009

    Bioethicists have zero influence outside of those who read their airy writings. Most people do not take advice from bioethicists when making these kinds of decisions. They want to know if the procedure will work and if it is safe. They also want to know how much it will cost.

    If this technology is proven safe and effective AND it becomes cost-effective, many people (not all) will go for it. IVF is still very expensive ($14k per attempt) with a 30% success rate. Thus, a couple can expect to shell out $40k in order to get a kid via IVF. Most people either cannot or will not shell out this kind of money for a kid. If IVF dropped to say $2-3K per attempt with, say, a 50-60% success rate, a lot more people will pay $5k for the kid that they want.

  11. #11 Joshua Zelinsky
    March 22, 2009

    Jay, strong disagreement there. Mass execution of poorly defined racial groups accompanied is not at all the same as using social pressure to eliminate deleterious alleles. If social pressure was problematic then we would see social pressure that considers certain features to be better looking to be in the same category. No one minds if some men prefer one hair-color or range of BMIs. No one minds if there is a social pressure among females to mate with males who are taller than them (ok, well I mind but that’s because I’m a short male). If social pressure is at all akin to unethical eugenics then every society in the world is full of terrible, evil people.

  12. #12 Brian
    March 22, 2009

    “I’ve talked to a lot of Jews about this sort of thing and for many of them, especially those of Eastern European descent it is very hard to convince them that this sort of procedure has no similarity at all to anything the Nazis were doing.”

    Interestingly, some of the more recent commentators on eugenics are Jewish. For instance, John Glad & Seymour Itzkoff. Itzkoff writes the preface to Glad’s e-book ‘Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century’:

    “The term eugen-ics has been on an ideological hit list both by the irrational left as well as by an intimidated public. However, as Dr. Glad points out, clearly and authoritatively, there is virtually no factual basis for what can only be seen as a totemic reaction. The mere mention of eugenics elicits knee-jerk reaction—“Nazi genocide, forced sterilization.” Yet by any standard of rational analysis, this vision of improvement for the human species has a strong humanistic tradition to support its fur-ther application.

    The real history of eugenics, as Dr. Glad points, out is rich in a truly liberal vision for the improvement in the state of all of humankind…

    I would like to add a comment to Dr. Glad’s clear and de-cisive puncturing of the balloon of myth that argues that the Nazis claimed to have actually engaged in a program of eugenics…Not only did the Nazis not argue for their participation in the eugenics movement, but they knew that they were practicing dysgenics.”

  13. #13 Kosmo
    March 23, 2009

    I’d be concerned that in cleansing the gene pool of certain risk-factor alleles, you’d end up lopping off the far right tail of the bell curve in terms of cognition. There is some evidence that the long tail owes much of its existance to such dangerous alleles.

  14. #14 Joshua Zelinsky
    March 23, 2009

    Kosmo, that’s easily solved by just eliminating the homozygotes and not eliminating the alleles all together. However, in at least some cases this doesn’t need to be a worry. For example, look at Huntington’s where the relevant alleles are dominant.

  15. #15 free thinker
    March 23, 2009

    It seems likely that the genetic basis for criminality will be understood sooner that the genetic basis for intelligence. The question is: After we understand it, what are we going to do about? I, for one, do not consider a vasectomy to be a cruel and unusual punishment, but probably a majority would disagree. In another fifty years–after our criminal underclass has been out of control for a few decades–the matter might come up for serious discussion.

  16. #16 jay
    March 23, 2009

    Jay, strong disagreement there. Mass execution of poorly defined racial groups accompanied is not at all the same as using social pressure to eliminate deleterious alleles. If social pressure was problematic…

    The problem with the ‘eugenics’movement was that outside forces (government and society) were invoked to invade personal choice. In the extreme, people who were considered inappropriate for reproduction (and this was not just ‘vague racial prejudices’, it was quantifiable items like low IQ, behavioral problems, and health problems —not much different from the modern version at all) were candidates for sterilization or other processes to keep their ‘bad’ genes out of the next generation. In some areas the eugenicists were ‘right’ (and considered scientifically so at the time–don’t forget THAT when you ridicule skepticism) in that some characteristics were indeed hereditary. Scientifically right or wrong was not the problem, coercion was.

    We all practice a form of eugenics when selecting a mate, but this is done in harmony with personal freedom, not against it.

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