Paved with Good Intentions

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Francis Kane

Paved	with	Good	Intentions
                                                 of most social science, the developing             in the battles against PKU and Tay Sachs
Heredity	and	Hope                                story, like all good yarns, has a certain          and the stinging failure of the sickle-cell
The	Case	for	Genetic	Screening                   drama to it. It has its share of heroes            story. Cowan’s paradigmatic case is the
Ruth Schwartz Cowan                              and villains and a troublesome chorus.             lesser-known story of beta-thalassemia
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 304 pp.
                                                 The villains, eugenicists such as the Eng-         disease on the island of Cyprus. There
                                                 lishman Francis Galton, the American               the author spent time studying how both


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     n Heredity and Hope, Ruth Schwartz          Hermann Muller, the Russian Alexsandr              the Turkish and Cypriot communities
     Cowan, professor of history and soci-       Serebrovsky, and the infamous Nazis, are           have virtually eliminated this genetic
     ology of science at the University of       given short shrift, which is what they             and (if untreated) fatal blood disorder
Pennsylvania, has written an informative         deserve. Cowan’s heroes are the scientists         through what amounts to a mandatory
and readable history of genetic screen-          and physicians—people like James Neel,             screening policy. It is her experience in
ing. She walks the reader through the            who was among the first to see the thera-          Cyprus that changed Cowan’s views and
complex and sometimes controversial              peutic possibilities of Mendel’s genetics;         led to her unabashed support of genetic
practices that have created the new field        Fritz Fuchs, who developed the procedure           screening.
of genetic medicine. As for the claim in         of amniocentesis; Robert Guthrie, who                 The book’s dramatic tension is pro-
the subtitle, The Case for Genetic Screen-       developed the test for PKU; and others             vided by what one might call the op-
ing, well, on that score: caveat lector!         who successfully combined the develop-             positional chorus. The author is trying




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   First, the historical account. In the first   ing science of genetics with the practice          to address four very different groups that
half of her book, the author recounts for        of obstetrics. There are dramatic victories        reject the new medical genetics: some
the lay reader the story of the beginnings
of genetic testing (for individuals) and
screening (for groups) as they developed
out of, and differentiated themselves
from, the morally opprobrious eugen-
                                                      SEVEN DEADLY SINS
                                                      A V E RY P A RT I A L L I S T
ics movements of the first half of the
twentieth century. The new forms of                   AV I A D K L E I N B E R G
screening—prenatal, newborn, and car-                 T R A N S L AT E D B Y S U S A N E M A N U E L I N
                                                      C O L L A B O R AT I O N W I T H T H E A U T H O R
rier testing—have, as she sees it, goals
that are significantly different from those           There is no society without right and wrong.
of the eugenics movement. She points                  There is no society without sin. But every
out (fairly convincingly for this nonhis-             culture has its own favorite list of trespasses.
torian) that the missions of eugenics and             Perhaps the most influential of these was
genetic screening are at cross-purposes               drawn up by the Church in late antiquity: the
with each other: eugenicists wanted to                Seven Deadly Sins. With intellectual insight
purify the gene pool by eliminating un-               and deadpan humor, Kleinberg deftly guides
                                                                                                                                                  . November 7, 2008
desirable genetic traits—mainly through               the reader through Jewish, Christian,
sterilization—while the techniques of                 and Greco-Roman thoughts 
				
DOCUMENT INFO
Description: [...] Cowan seems to be answering their failed argument with a fallacy of her own: the mistake of converting an is or was into an ought - of converting facts by themselves into a moral argument. [...] the practical problem of genetic discrimination on the part of health-insurance companies needs to be addressed by any thoughtful advocate of genetic screening.
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