Problems with Genetic Counseling


I recently read an article about genetic counseling. For those of you who don't know the term, this is essentially using eugenics (i.e. selective breeding on humans) to eliminate undesirable traits with a genetic basis (e.g. Down syndrome) by convincing pregnant women with an afflicted baby/fetus/whatever-were-calling-it-today to have abortions and at-risk non-pregnant women to not become pregnant. As someone who would probably have been culled of such groups had been deciding things when I was born (I have Asperger's Syndrome), this is something I worry about.

The article I read was basically complaining that doctors in Australia (where the author was) are becoming very pushy about this, to the point that it is displacing their actually helping the people they are supposed to be doing medicine on. I expect that this is a bit of an extreme case, but it seems like a bad trend.

I think there are also some theoretical issues with the whole approach that are worth pointing out (mostly not my ideas).
  1. Why don't these genetic counseling experts ever find people with good genes who don't want children and tell them they should have some for the good of the species? Also, they should try to convince women with un-defective children who want abortions not to have them for the same reason. The current system seems kind of unbalanced.
  2. People who are different than normal (assuming there is such a thing) are biodiversity in our species. Without variations in the population, we will be much less able to adapt to changes in the world. This applies both the genetic adaptation (e.g. small-scale evolution) and to changes in technology, climate, social structures, etc. I don't think we are wise enough to determine beforehand what adaptations will be valuable in the future.
  3. Variation in the population gives us the benefits of trade. Not only would making Albert Einstein normal have been a bad thing, making everyone else like him would make society function badly.
  4. Everyone carries around a lot of genetic defects. Who decides which ones are acceptable and which should be eliminated? If, for example, we ever actually find a gene that makes people more or less religious, do we a) leave it alone, b) eliminate the religious variant in the name of promoting reason, c) eliminate the atheistic variant by analogy to colour-blindness, or d) fight a holy war over it?
  5. I don't like the idea of judging people as more or less valuable based on their DNA. Whatever happened to everyone being created equal? For that matter, even if we did decide that some people are less valuable to society, that does not mean that the more valuable segment has a right to exploit them.
  6. Genetics is not your destiny. Many people with genetic defects grow up to be net contributors to society, and many people with "good" genes become total wash-outs. Judging people based on what we predict they will be like instead of what they actually do has got to violate some fundamental principle of justice.
  7. This seems very vulnerable to exploitation. A bit of selective application in the grey areas could be easily used to reduce the population of pesky minority (or even majority) groups. Ethnic groups are the obvious example, but this could apply to political, social, or economic groups as well.

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