Friday, February 26, 2010

The disappearing disabled

Mark Mostert | | Thursday, 25 February 2010

Dread genetic diseases are disappearing -- because parents and doctors are eliminating the children who have them.

Any allusion to present day biomedical practices as being eugenic usually leads to quite hysterical denials and the accusation that one sees everything one disagrees with as being painted with the inappropriate Nazi brush.

I’ve heard all the arguments, so please spare me: The only people who were Nazis were the Nazis. The only things that are eugenic are what the Nazis did in the interests of breeding a more superior race. Genetic research in this day and age is an absolutely cutting edge, wonderful, and very necessary ethical endeavor.

The howling eugenics deniers will even concede that eugenics didn’t originate in Nazi Germany (the US and the UK have that distinction), and, if pressed, that some prominent historical figures supported eugenics (Margaret Sanger and Winston Churchill among them). But that’s as far as it goes. The prevailing zeitgeist holds that eugenics was a terrible thing in a time gone by. It doesn’t happen any more. We learned from our collective social mistakes.

The thinking behind eugenics isn’t very difficult to understand. People are different in many ways. Some of these differences are socially and medically acceptable, others are not. We need more people with socially acceptable traits, fewer people with undesirable traits. There are two ways to do this. One, we passively encourage people with undesirable traits not to reproduce, but this takes a long time to reduce the undesirable population. Two, we actively take steps to eliminate those with undesirable traits by whatever means we can. Historically, that has meant sterilization, abortion, laws banning people with undesirable traits from marrying or reproducing, and the killing of so-called defectives.

Which brings us to an AP story that surfaced recently.

Essentially, the article makes the case that advances in genetic screening are reducing the incidence of children born with a wide range of genetic anomalies, so much so that several genetically-induced disabilities are close to being completely eliminated. However, the AP is, unintentionally but clearly, an exemplar of the spin that has morphed eugenics from a reprehensible horror to a heroic and loving social responsibility with predictable results. Eugenics is now called preventive medicine. Full story.

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