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A note on genetic discrimination

In Abortion, Birth Control, Conservative, Culture War, Distributism, Economics, Ethics, Family, Feminism, Philosophy, Politics, Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, Thoughts, Values on May 27, 2008 at 20:13

Reuters reported early this month that the US Federal Congress had overwhelmingly approved a bill that prohibits insurers from discriminating against people with genetic predispositions to illness. According to the report, the bill would also prohibit employers from using genetic information in personnel decisions, and insurers from demanding genetic tests.

That is good news, I think. Although some might wonder if the bill prematurely reacts to a Frankenstein concern, I think it timely in view of the increased knowledge of the genome. To explain: what we call ‘genes’ are actually sequences (of groups of molecules called nucleotides) in DNA (specifically the DNA in the nucleus; we’ve also got some in mitochondria). The patterns of these sequences, through messenger RNA (which are mobile code-transmitters, or chemical fax machines, if you will), become the basis for forming the proteins that make up our whole bodies. That means that, through our DNA, our predisposition to everything from alcoholism to high IQs are known in advance.

Of course, they’re not infallibly foreknown, since we still have to take account of the environment (which affects the actual or “phenotypical” expression of genetic factors) and interactions among genes (because some genes catalyze, if you will, the expression or non-expression of other genes); but looking at nuclear DNA is still a statistically solid way of predicting physical and psychological traits. In other words, at the moment of conception (or specifically, fertilization) when our chromosomes are formed, anyone who knows how to look would pretty much know what you’ll probably be like. (Also, someone with the right tools, especially DNA polymerase, could make DNA as open to reprogramming as Linux and in the near future alter your self-to-be. Fortunately, despite Jurassic Park, this is still pretty much sci-fi because of the imprecision of existing methods, but the future will change that.)

If, therefore, we allowed discrimination on the basis of genetics, we would see an emergent trend of people being preferred or rejected for everything from employment to health insurance on the basis of something over which they have very little control. (Considering the now-disturbing abortion rates of “inferior” babies, this is not a merely speculative “slippery-slope” warning.) Perhaps some radical transhumanists might favor this as being compatible with an “enlightened” eugenics, but it would clearly go against our ideological tradition against creating an aristocracy or an underclass by reason of lineage, or because of anything other than free will and merit. At least old-style Calvinism allowed people to hope that they might be the predestined Elect; with genetic discrimination, you’d know you’re damned.

That said, I must confess to being pessimistic that we can long hold back the tide against any genetic predestination, legal bans notwithstanding. The reason is clear. Other discrimination bans have no direct link to utility (all things being equal, a female or male South Asian, African, or Caucasian surgeon would be just as good) but genes help decide what skills you’ll likely have. With an economics that prioritizes production of goods and sees individuals primarily as factors in production; with political parties that vary only in that they define utility differently (e.g., Republicans’ neoliberalism vs. Democrats’ my-body-my-choice ideology) but agree that human beings come after goods/freedom in value, outright genetic discrimination is just a matter of time. For unless we return to the idea that human beings have intrinsic worth even if they’re “unproductive” or a “danger” to our “choice”, we’ll have no way to keep people from being judged and discriminated against because of their extrinsic usefulness, for which genes are good evidence. I only hope I’m wrong.

Deus vobiscum.

  1. I don’t really see there to be a difference between the discrimination now and that which will result after wide-spread genetic engineering, except for this bit:

    “…people being preferred or rejected for everything from employment to health insurance on the basis of something over which they have very little control.”

    With genetic engineering, soon after it is possible to select a child’s genotype it will be possible to insert or remove genes into somatic cells of an adult. Meaning that the our genome will be something we have just as much control over as our hair style. Our genome, not just that of our children, would reflect free will and merit.

    (btw, site-specific DNA integrases or recombinases will probably be more useful than polymerases)

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  3. Understanding the concept of “intrinsic” worth and “extrinsic” usefulness could be plainer to comprehend as far as material objects are concerned, but for the same concepts to be applied to human beings – is mighty difficult to grasp for me. I have a teenaged son who is “learning challenged” and has autistic characteristics. However, he lives a full life in his own little world: he loves watching NBA games, plays computer games, is an altar server in our local parish, and tags along with his siblings in Youth For Christ chapter activities. He struggles mightily with academics in the special school he studies at, has difficulty socializing, and so it is a long shot that he will find a well-paying productive job in the future. But he has simple pleasures and smiles a lot, and my family feels so much blessed to have him.

    Meanwhile, the British Parliament has recently approved the creation of hybrid embryos, made by introducing human DNA into animal ova. The measure aims to compensate for a “shortage” of human embryos used for embryonic stem cell research. Shades of the Island of Dr. Moreau. Now this is what I might call “genetic incrimination”.

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