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Eugenics: Are we ready for our genetic future?

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I have just finished watching a rather disturbing documentary on TV. Some of you may have seen it too, so you'll know why I call it disturbing. It was the final episode of 'DNA', entitled 'The Future', from the good old Beeb in the UK.

Dr James 'Jim' Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix and the genetic bases of our existence seems to be using his name to promote some rather controversial issues.

When DNA was discovered nearly fifty years ago it was considered 'significant', except nobody really knew which direction it was going to take now that we were aware what it was that made us the way we are.

Then came Dolly the sheep, and cloning became feasible, at least in animals. This has been followed by many other experiments in this rather contentious field, bringing it to the point where the cloning of humans may be just around the corner.

Behind the scenes of all this cutting-edge genetic research I discovered tonight, was the shadow of Dr Watson, still working in the field for which he became famous after securing the Nobel Prize back in 1962.

It was Watson who lobbied the US Congress for the money to begin work on 'gene mapping', which, as we now know, ended in the discovery of the complete human genome. I'm pretty sure it was his name that secured the millions -- sorry, billions -- required to undertake this massive project.

As with the discovery of DNA back in the fifties and wondering where it would go from there, so too we now observe this new achievement and wonder the same thing. Or do we?

Dr Watson, apparently, had but one idea about the human genome once it was perfected, and that was eugenics. Now eugenics may make some of you very apprehensive, as it should do if your only knowledge of it comes from the Nazi atrocities used in WWII.

But before jumping to any false conclusions, let's be fair and say that eugenics was also dabbled in a good half century before that by Dr Davenport, who even wrote a book on the subject. His aim was to rid the world of 'feeble-mindedness' by not allowing persons with this affliction to breed.

Now, while we may laugh at this rather quaint attempt to tamper with something that was very little understood at the time, it does raise the prospect -- as Dr Watson very clearly sees right now -- of being able to eradicate many inherited genetic defects so that they will be no more.

To cite one or two examples: haemophilia, cystic fibrosis, breast cancer, depression and some other mental illnesses, all of which are inherited, can be painful, frequently lead to a miserable existence and quite often, an early death; these, and hundreds of other instances, could safely be eradicated from our genetic 'code' and allow previously afflicted families to have happy, healthy children instead.

But would it stop there? Could it stop there? Inherited characteristics are one thing, but what about when things just plain 'go wrong', where there's no family history, and yet an 'imperfect' baby results simply because a gene didn't copy properly or an entire group of genes 'malfunctioned'?

Tests already exist for such 'accidents' as Downe's Syndrome babies, where a genetic mutation results from a slip-up in the copying. The mother can decide to have an abortion if the test proves positive, rather than bring into the world a child not considered to be 'standard'.

But how about conditions such as depression or even schizophrenia, now believed to run in families and therefore have a genetic connection? As the program pointed out, this particular condition was often associated with great creativity, so how would we ever know that we were not aborting a Van Gogh or a Beethoven or even an Einstein?

Worse, if we could actually remove the 'offensive' gene, or group of genes, before procreation, how many unborn artists [of all persuasions] would never see the light of day?

Dr Watson asked his audience 'If we don't play God, who will?', referring, of course, to the future use the human genome project could be put to. Well yes, who will?

Playing God depends so much on who's doing the playing. An ethical doctor, any human being, would no doubt jump at the chance to rid the world of the suffering caused by many inherited genetic defects. There's already enough suffering of other kinds to add unnecessarily to it, so in this respect, eugenics would be very desirable, very beneficial.

But where to draw the line? It would only take another Hitler to turn eugenics into an evil and terrifying program, such as it was seventy years ago. Even a less ethical doctor whose values were perhaps more materialistic, could easily be turned from doing good to doing evil.

Where DO we draw the line? Do we even go down this road at all? Have we already gone too far to turn back? How do we regulate this vast, new field to prevent the Hitlers of history from getting their hands on anything as sensitive as this?

It IS our future. But is our future about to lead us wildly astray?

Gret Racine

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Physical vs Mental

by Black Panther In reply to Eugenics: Are we ready fo ...

I supposed you can look at this a few different ways. Well I did anyway. Right or wrong here are my observations:-

If you believe in God then you may have concerns with the tampering of the human genetic code.

If you don't believe in God then you most likely will not care and agree to try and improve/perfect the human race ( as by the definition of what improvement or pefection my mean to you in todays society ).

ie Hitler saw it as blonde haired and blue eyed.


The most interesting part to me was that Dr Watson still could not find any DNA responsible for mental illness. ( a shame considering his own son suffers from it ).

Now this lead "me" to think about the relationship between the human mind and the genetic code.

Is the genetic code linked in any way to the human mind or is it only responsible for our physical attributes.

And if it is not repsonsible for our human mind - the question is what is?

Also interesting the similarities between the genetic code of humans and mice - %99.9 compatible. :)

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nothing to do with religion

by Bob in Calgary In reply to Physical vs Mental

I personally do not want the human race to be "perfect" It is everyones individuality and flaws that make people what they are. if that includes genetic errors then that is the way life works. we shouldn't tamper with it. and no i don't believe in god.
There will be people that support eugenics and try to build a master race again and there will need to be controls put in place, somehow, to prevent that line of research.

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'If we don't play God, who will?' (Dr Watson on 'DNA: The Future')

I don't believe in God either, Bob, and nor does Dr Watson, by the sound of it.

However, genetic errors which cause suffering and which could be eradicated I do believe in getting rid of. Who wants others to suffer needlessly?

But you've hit the nail on the head by pointing out the negative effects of eugenics, such as was tried with Hitler's so-called 'master race'. That's exactly what we've got to try and avoid. There's got to be legislation in place before everything gets out of hand.

I unequivocally condemn any kind of research in eugenics along the lines of a master race or anything like it, but I do support it when it comes to easing the unnecessary suffering so many families face because of inherited genetic defects.

That research warrants support and lots of government money.

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by Bob in Calgary In reply to 'If we don't play God, wh ...

OK not trying to sound like a cold hearted a$$

there will always be genetic errors it is a factor of the natural reproductive cycle and with todays environment thrown in for good measure. once we have identified all the genetic patterns and combinations that can cause defects what comes next? a list of eligable partners you are allowed to mate with?

I just see it as tampering with life to a level that would eventually wipe out the individuality that makes us human. people born with genetic defects are part of life and the natural lifecycle.

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Tell that

by Absolutely In reply to But

"people born with genetic defects are part of life and the natural lifecycle" to somebody born with Down's Syndrome.

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What would you do..if you had the choice?

by Black Panther In reply to Tell that

If you found out before the birth of your child by DNA testing that it had Downs Syndrome?

ie Would you want the test to be done in the first place?

If so and it was positive would you then abort?

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To abort or not to abort, that is the question

This is a test that came along years after my son was born, so I don't know at what stage of a pregnancy it gets done, Panther.

Needless to say, I think that would have a very great bearing on my final decision. If it was during the first trimester, I'd definitely say yes.

However, once into the second trimester, I'd be wavering a bit, and by the third trimester, it would be a definite no.

On the other hand, the test may not be able to be carried out successfully until the foetus reaches a certain stage, say well into the second or even third trimester, which would make the mother's decision very, very difficult.

I can't explain it to you properly, but before the 'bulge' begins to show, most women are just a bit blase about the whole business of pregnancy. There's nothing to really 'show' for it!

Then, of course, by the second trimester when the baby actually begins to move, everything changes. Suddenly this 'thing' has become a real person, a very small one to be sure, but nevertheless, a person.

So if the test can only be carried out in the later stages, then I'd in all probability say no, but yes to an earlier stage.

Then you've got to remember other factors. How will this child effect other siblings in the family? Will the family be able to afford the extra cost of care such a special child will require without depriving the other children?

All these have to be taken into consideration as well, Panther, not just the stage when the test is administered.

So sometimes, in spite of everything else, a mother may honestly have to make the decision to abort, whatever stage she's at. If she knows that the family won't adequately be able to afford the extra care needed for this child, or she thinks the interaction with the rest of the family will harm them in some way, or indeed anything else, then she must make the decision to abort no matter what.

As I said, it's a grey area that legislation MUST be on top of, from go to whoa, and I don't really have any answers.

Does anyone?

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I would wonder

by Absolutely In reply to What would you do..if you ... I had become a woman, if I had the right to make a choice regarding abortion.

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Gret, I know that I DON'T have the answer!

by DMambo In reply to What would you do..if you ...

When my wife was pregnant with #2, she had an amnioscentisis (sp?) because an ultrasound raised some questions. We waited 3 weeks before we had an answer and just could not make the decision whether we would abort if the test came back positive. We never had to face the choice as the test came back negative and the kid was born healthy. The thing I learned during those trying weeks was that this choice is not one that the government should dictate. The main question running thru my mind at the time was how would this affect the lives of our other child and our future chidren. I have seen the impact that it had on other families, and I was not sure I had the strength to endure that.

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I don' think it would be the government who'd be making the final choices, Mambo, and I hope it never sounded as if that's what was meant.

It would ultimately ALWAYS be the mother's choice [well, the father too, maybe!] whether she went ahead with an abortion or not.

However, the issue pointed out by the program was that no choice would ever be necessary in the future because all these 'bad' genes would have been bred out. In that respect, yes, the government would be the one making the choice and it would be a very final choice too.

After that, if for some reason we then decided we wanted those genes back in the genome, I've no idea how you'd do that once they'd been 'bred out'.

Finito, perhaps?

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