Genetic screening

February 2, 1996

Dorothy Nelkin and Susan Lindee look at how genetic determinism in the media fosters acceptance of controlling reproduction for a common good.

When in 1991, CBS commentator Andy Rooney said on television that blacks have watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have most children, his reference to "watered down" genes drew on a form of evolutionary explanation that played an important role in earlier eugenic initiatives. The popular idea that the poor are uniquely fertile persists despite contrary data. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, in The Bell Curve, worry about "dysgenic" practices and policies. Genes for intelligence, they claim, are unevenly distributed among social classes because people marry within their social class. Since the upper classes tend to have fewer children, there is a "shrinking of the genius pool" that threatens the species with genetic decline.

Popular stories convey an often muted set of questions: is it right to bring a "damaged child" into the world? Do carriers of genetic diseases have a duty to prevent their perpetuation? People with hereditary diseases and disabilities fear that increasing access to genetic information through prenatal screening and the increasing acceptability of selective abortion of "defective" foetuses will devalue them, and lead to increased discrimination against those who are physically different.

A public dispute over the reproductive choices of a TV anchorwoman in 1991 reinforced such concerns. Bree Walker Lampley has a hereditary condition manifest in abnormal hands and feet. When Lampley was pregnant, a Los Angeles talk-radio host asked listeners: "Is it fair to pass along a genetically disfiguring disease to your child?" She expressed disgust with Lampley's decision. "It would be difficult for me to bring myself morally to cast my child forever to disfiguring hands. I'm wondering about the social consciousness of it all."

The anxiety over the "social consciousness " of Lampley's decision reflects contemporary concerns about people with disabilities as a drain on increasingly limited social resources. Once attributed to the work of the devil, disabilities are often seen in terms of their cost implications for the state. When disabilities are understood to be economic burdens for society, choosing to bear an imperfect child becomes a social as well as an individual matter.

Popular stories about "bad genes" often focus on violence or mental illness. An episode in the TV series Northern Exposure portrayed a doctor counselling a patient who was worried his violent ancestry meant he was genetically prone to commit atrocities. He wanted to marry, but feared he would pass on this violent nature to his children. The doctor agreed that his genes were potentially destructive. "What you are talking about is a genetic Chernobyl."

The pervasive sense of crisis surrounding contemporary problems has brought another perspective to the cultural view of the genetic future and its meaning for reproductive controls. For very different groups the biological condition of the human species is in a state of crisis so severe as to justify reproductive controls. The literature of Neo-Nazis and some ecological radicals, for example, is filled with imminent catastrophe. And they share a sense that the future of the planet will depend on the social and political control of reproduction.

The rhetoric of Neo-Nazi groups draws on evolutionary arguments. "Nature may be ruthless in culling out the weak, the meek, the misfits and the degenerate," one pamphlet says, but this is essential to building a better species and a more orderly world. Building on such evolutionary arguments, white supremacists call for "white genetic procreation". The issue is "survival." Controlling reproduction is central to their long-term political agenda.

For some ecologists the human species threatens the earth. They use the language of survival when they write about "eco-catastrophe" and populations "out of control". Some are misanthropes: "We the human species, have become a viral epidemic to the earth I the Aids of the Earth." They frame their agenda in terms of reproductive responsibility. "Real environmentalists don't have kids."

The theme of improving the human stock and saving the species from extinction is a plot device in popular entertainment. In David Brin's The Uplift War genetic manipulation led to an "uplift" of the species. Island City was a TV programme about "unnatural selection, a thriller set in the future in which genetics has run amok". These narratives suggest the compelling social interest in controlling reproduction to secure the human future. This interest has led some to advocate interventions that would selectively limit reproductive rights.

In 1994, a wave of policy books appeared about the decline in intelligence in America and the threat posed by the declining quality of the gene pool. The Bell Curve, for instance, proposed abolishing welfare subsidies to discourage single parents from bearing children.

Moreover, the problems and costs associated with low birthweight babies, foetal alcohol syndrome and babies with Aids prompted discussions about the rights of women to bear children if this conflicts with the interests of society. The issue crystallised in debates over the use of Norplant. As a form of temporary sterilisation, Norplant appeals to many women as a contraceptive of choice. But the very qualities that make it attractive as a contraceptive also make it a politically useful means of controlling reproduction for the public good. In a 1991 Los Angeles Times poll, 61 per cent of respondents approved of requiring Norplant for drug-abusing women of child-bearing age. This response suggests the appeal of controlling reproduction as a way to improve society - the very same goals as the eugenics movement some 80 years ago.

In the 1950s the American geneticist Herman J. Muller suggested that "purposive control" of reproduction should be carried out "not by means of decrees and orders from authorities, but through the freely exercised volition of the individuals concerned, motivated by their own desire to contribute to human benefit in the ways most effective for them". Muller joined Robert Graham in founding the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank that offered "the genes of men whose genetic inheritance seems exceptionally favourable". In the 1990s, Muller's vision of reproductive responsibility and technological control has in some ways become a reality. Sperm banks are growing in number and in social acceptability. Graham continues to run the Nobel Sperm Bank, advertising for sperm in the newsletter of Mensa, the high-IQ group that has founded a eugenics special interest group "to provide a communications network for all people committed to enhancing genetic quality".

Popular stories about genetic responsibilities frame controls of reproduction in terms of personal choice. These stories suggest an expansion of parental responsibilities. Those who plan to bear a child are expected to consider not only the emotional cost to the child (of disability), but also the social and economic burdens on the state posed by less-than-perfect offspring. In this interpretation, welfare mothers should stop having babies because they recognise the cost to taxpayers; prosperous women should have more babies because they recognise that society needs intelligent children; women with disabilities should choose not to bear children because they do not want to burden their child or society with the costs of abnormality; and all parents suspecting a "genetic Chernobyl" should choose not to reproduce. But all such decisions are to be voluntary, a form of preventative behaviour based on personal recognition of social obligations.

Such narratives of responsibility, however, are politically naive. Personal choices are socially mediated, influenced by cultural forces and economic realities. Individual decisions about reproduction reflect the assimilation of beliefs about desirable behaviour. Moreover, the privatisation of reproductive decisions in the entrepreneurial culture of America leads to their commodification, and this is hardly likely to safeguard against abuse. The "voluntary" actions of individuals are constrained by economic circumstances and available opportunities. As Hermann Muller observed, social mores and collective values shape individual choices in ways that can fulfil eugenic ends, even in the absence of coercive public policies.

Extremist positions - the "positive eugenics" of certain policy analysts and the "negative eugenics" espoused by neo-Nazi groups - remain marginal. They confront the American cultural belief that procreation is a right. Less marginal are ideas about genetic responsibility that appear in popular culture: eugenics in contemporary culture is less an ideology of the state than a set of ideals about a perfected and "healthy" human future. Popular beliefs about the importance of heredity facilitate eugenic practices even in the absence of direct political control of reproduction, for eugenics is not simply gross coercion of individuals by the state - even in Nazi Germany individual "choice" played a role in the maintenance of highly oppressive state policy. Rather it can be productively understood as a constellation of beliefs about the importance of genetics in shaping human health and behaviour, the nature of worthwhile life, the interests of society, and, especially, the terms of reproductive responsibility. These beliefs - conveyed through the stories of popular culture - draw on the assumption that our social, political and economic future will depend on controlling the genetic constitution of the species.

Dorothy Nelkin teaches at New York University and Susan Lindee at the University of Pennsylvania. They are co-authors of DNA Mystique, published by W. H. Freeman.

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