The eugenics movement and other misguided attempts to translate science into government policy provide support for contemporary fears of stigmatization. Proponents of eugenics, a dominant scientific philosophy from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, sought to improve the quality of the human race through social policy based on flawed theories about heritable characteristics (Galton and Galton). Agents of the government dissuaded persons perceived as mentally deficient or possessing an inherently criminal nature from reproducing, sometimes through laws mandating sterilization of groups of persons (Markel). Eugenic principles were consistent with social classification policies implemented in support of Nazi Germany, and contributed to the mass exterminations of persons.
With regard to the issue of race, many who cite concerns of genetic discrimination emphasize the dangers attendant to the racialization of disease or conflating social categories with genetic variations (Lee, et al.). Despite evidence that patterns of genetic variation are greater within racialized groups than between them, resistance to historical patterns of classifying persons by race is neither easy nor simple.
The association of disease with an identifiable human population is a dangerous and often unintended consequence of technology. In the later years of the twentieth century, efforts in the United States to implement policies to help persons afflicted with sickle-cell disease, a heritable disease, proved disastrous. A push for early diagnosis and treatment yielded several state laws that mandated screening African Americans for the disease. The years following the passage of these laws were marked by an increase in acts of discrimination by government, insurers, and employers against persons afflicted with the disease, as well as against persons who were merely carriers of the trait (Markel). The disease became associated with African-Americans in a way that illustrated the dangers and improvidence of conflating race with a particular genetic composition. The foregoing demonstrates the perils of premature and perhaps shortsighted policymaking.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were reports of discord within the Jewish community regarding genetic testing (Schwartz, Rothenberg, Joseph, et al.). Following the identification of mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 that are associated with a higher risk of breast or ovarian cancer, many supported testing as critical to prevention and treatment of women who carry the mutation, while others discouraged participation based on fear of stigmatization (American College of Medical Genetics). This reaction against genetic testing was based in part on a controversial history of research on Tay-Sachs disease. The knowledge gap between the ability to predict a condition and the ability to treat it created uncertainty and the opportunity for misinterpretation of existing information.
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