By Adam Turner
Genetic counseling, as the previous two posts in this series suggest, has a lot to offer for navigating the tricky decisions things like prenatal testing and preimplantation genetic diagnosis raise. Well, in this post I’d like to make things a little more complicated. Enter the sheer messiness of history. I still believe genetic counseling is the best approach we have right now for helping prospective parents with hard choices, but it has a complicated — and not so distant — past that continues to shape counselors’ ways of interacting with clients.
Surprisingly, I have been asked that question on more than one occasion. I have had students ask me during class and once after a conference presentation. The last time I was confronted with this question was in my summer class, when an earnest young student asked, “If you take the racial prejudice out, what’s wrong with eugenics?” The student continued to press his point: “What’s wrong with a program that has the goal of improving the human race and now that genetics is so advanced, surely we could make sure that people have the best genes and traits. Wouldn’t that make for a healthier, happier population?” Hmm. So much to think about here. A program that uses cutting edge science to improve the human race by ensuring that individuals have only the best genes or traits so that people will be healthy and happy? Indeed, what is so bad about that? Who can say, “NO” to having the best genes, being healthy, and being happy? This is precisely the reason why eugenics was fairly easy “to sell” in the early twentieth century. For the sake of brevity, let’s set aside the vast complexity of the science of genetics and pretend that we could just pluck out the “bad” genes and insert the “good” ones on DNA strands so that in a few generations we might have a utopian world filled with people swimming in the luxurious, healthy, and happy waters of the “best” gene pool. At this point, I have two questions. What determines which genes or traits are the “best,” and in this program of improving the human race, who makes the determination of which ones are the best? Me? You? Or what about a panel of experts? Afterall, we are talking about using science and a panel of objective scientific experts seems like an appropriate choice to make these important decisions. Or is it? While we ponder that for a moment, let’s take a look back.
Once upon a time (about two months ago) a group of academics/activists got together to start Nursing Clio, a collaborative blog project that aimed to engage with historical scholarship as a means to contextualize present-day political, social, and cultural issues surrounding gender and medicine. To be honest with you, dear readers (all 5 of you), in the planning stages I sometimes doubted whether we would have enough present-day material to continue the blog past the first month. What if we ran out of material? What if we said everything we needed to say? I made sure to make a list of emergency blog post ideas just in case we got desperate.
As it turns out, we have never once had to break into the emergency blog post survival kit. Between the North Carolina preacher who invoked the Holocaust in an anti-gay sermon, to the continuing War on Women, to the new movie Hysteria – our gender, medicine, and history cup runneth over, my friends.