“We used to think that our fate was in the stars, but now we know that our fate is in our genes,” said Dr. James Watson (After Darwin, 2005). Genes are the physical and functional fundamental units of heredity. Genes are a specific segment of DNA that determine our inherited traits. Every gene has two copies, one copy from each parent. A majority of genes are going to be the same in all humans except for a small amount. Alleles are forms of a gene with slight differences in the sequence of DNA that provides a person with their unique physical features. Mutations can also cause a gene to be different in which a permanent alteration is made to the sequence of DNA of that particular gene. The discovery of our genetic makeup has led to the existence of eugenics and genetic counseling which provides counseling for patients with genetic disorders.
Eugenics was a social movement that arose in the 20th century that implemented the human population and society could be improved by selective breeding of people with desirable traits (Steinbock, 2013). Society wanted people to couple together based on physical traits such as height and hair color. The underside of eugenics was getting rid of people who had undesirable traits such as being shorter, colored, having a mental illness, being homosexual, a Jew or gypsy (After Darwin, 2005). Sir Francis Galton was the first to coin the term eugenics (Origins of Eugenics, 2007).
Galton’s idea of eugenics was a method of healthy people with an increased intelligence to reproduce more children who are ideal for a desirable human. Galton's idea would later become disfavored due to the support it gave to Nazi racial policies and the poor science leading to the misunderstanding of genetically inherited traits. Adolf Hitler’s idea for eugenics was to create a superior Aryan race. His blonde hair blue eye idea was how he wanted his race of people to appear (After Darwin, 2005). Hilter’s Aryan race was frowned upon by society which created a negative effect for eugenics. Another reason that led to negative eugenics was lousy scientist and their misunderstanding of poverty, criminality and prostitution being genetically determined (After Darwin, 2005). The textbook states that critics view eugenics as discriminatory, while supporters maintain eugenics need not to be a bad thing (Steinbock, 2013). An example of an undesirable genetic trait that was used to discriminate against others during the eugenics movement was sickle cell disease.
Sickle cell disease is an inherited red blood cell disorder in which the hemoglobin within the cell forms into stiff rods and causes the cells to misshapen and break down (Steinbock, 2013). A person will either have sickle cell trait or sickle cell disease. Sickle cell trait is when a person only has one copy of the gene and is considered to be a carrier for the disease. Sickle cell disease is when the person has two copies of the gene and is positive for the disease. During the eugenics movement an Ortho Pharmaceutical company released a commercial product that tested for sickle hemoglobin (After Darwin, 2005). The test used drops of blood and if the the solution became cloudy then the person was positive for sickle hemoglobin. The test could not determine between sickle cell trait and sickle cell disease which caused misunderstanding and discrimation against people who tested positive. Flight attendants had been fired after testing positive for sickle cell trait. African American were not allowed to be pilots in the air force for being positive for sickle cell trait and possibly not having enough oxygen while in the air. The results from the commercial product caused a strain on the African Americans from advancing in society. Insurance companies also discriminated against those who had sickle cell trait by increasing their rates. Sickle cell disease is a genetic disorder that would cause people to seek genetic counseling if they wanted to further their family by having children.
Genetic counseling is the practice of helping people to identify unaffected carriers of a defective gene in order to counsel them about the risk of having affected children (genetic counseling, 2018). A couple may go see a genetic counselor before planning to become pregnant or during pregnancy. A couple would go see a genetic counselor before planning to become pregnant if there is a personal or family history with a certain or suspected disorder (genetic counseling, 2018). A couple would visit a genetic counselor during pregnancy if there was abnormal ultrasound, exposure during pregnancy, or an advanced maternal or paternal age (genetic counseling, 2018). Huntington’s disease is an inherited condition in which nerve cells in the brain break down over time (Steinbock, 2013). Kim Lindsay from the video inherited Huntington’s disease from her father and did not find out she had the disease until she was five months pregnant. Kim explains that you don’t have a choice when it comes to terminating your pregnancy with Huntington's disease in most places. Kim decided to terminate the pregnancy because of her child on day having to be sitting in that chair being told that they have Huntington’s as well. Kim was only one of the people in the video that experienced seeing a genetic counselor because of a genetic disorder. Another person from the video was Adela Crossley and baby Francine who was diagnosed with Trisomy 18. Adela Crossley from the video stated, “In her genetic makeup, for every pair of chromosomes number 18, she has an extra one, and that is very severe and there is severe mental retardation, physical retardation. Francine would never walk statistically speaking They’ve never known a child with trisomy 18 to ever walk or talk or progress mentally beyond a baby” (After Darwin, 2005). This woman is speaking on behalf of her child. She further goes on to mention that when she went for an ultrasound, that such issues such as a curved finger and one artery attached to the umbilical cord got the attention of the doctor that something was wrong. “Genetic counselors are there for people that are high risk and need support to have a healthy child not a perfect child” said Andrea Shugar (After Darwin, 2005). Their sole purpose informs potential parents on what can happen to their children as a result of something being wrong with certain genetic material.
In conclusion, eugenics became popular in America during the first half of the 20th century, but it gained negative attraction as Germany leader, Adolf Hitler became obsessed with creating a superior Aryan race. Eugenics was also given a bad name because of the lousy scientist and their lack of knowledge on genetically determined traits. An undesirable trait that played a role in the eugenics movement was Sickle cell disease. Sickle cell trait caused strain and discrimination against the African American Society. Genetic counseling is the practice of helping people understand the risk of having an affected child when a person is diagnosed or a carrier of a genetic disorder. Huntington’s and Trisomy 18 were two genetic disorders that were discussed in the video. Kim Lindsay and Adela Crossley both explain in the video their personal stories relating to genetic disorders. Eugenics and genetic counseling both have been looked at with great optimism for the benefit and harm that they have brought to the makeup of genetics.
The fact that humans were sought out to be created in an ideal way is a thing of the past that has brought ethical standards for today’s society.
- “Genetic Counseling.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Oct. 2018, www.cdc.gov/genomics/gtesting/genetic_counseling.htm.
- “Origins of Eugenics: From Sir Francis Galton to Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924.” Eugenics: Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Virginia, Eugenics & Buck v. Bell, University of Virginia , 2007, exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/eugenics/2-origins/.
- Steinbock, Bonnie, et al. Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine: Contemporary Readings in Bioethics. McGraw-Hill, 2013.
- Lavut, Martin, and Arnie Gelbart. After Darwin. Films for the Humanities, 2005. INSERT-MISSING-DATABASE-NAME, INSERT-MISSING-URL. Accessed 7 Dec. 2019.