As a science major fascinated by genetics, I was biased and slightly offended when the authors of “Race, Ethnicity, and Health: An Intersectional Approach,” Lynn Weber and M. Elizabeth Fore suggest shifting funds away from biomedically-driven research such as “The Human Genome Project”. However, the authors do bring up a good point when they state that biomedicine and fascination with genetics shift national resources and funding away from addressing health disparities to a more expensive and socially unequal health care system that would only benefit those who are privileged. The authors advocate that governments adjust their political agenda and reconceptualize health, moving beyond biomedicine to solutions addressing more universal social factors that will benefit groups of people instead of the individual.
According to bioethicist George Annas, the study of genetics also opens up the possibility of “genism,” discrimination based on one’s genotype rather than individual merit. Throughout history, assumed or pseudoscientific “genetic differences” have been used to justify social oppression; can the extensive study of genes encourage further discrimination, perhaps even a “genetic genocide”?
“No matter how great the potential of population genomics to show our interconnections, if it begins by describing our differences it will inevitably produce scientific wedges to hammer into the social cracks that already divide us,” says philosopher Eric Jeungst.
While I agree that governments should re-prioritize their political agendas and shift attention and funding from genetics to socioeconomical factors, I can’t help but feel that the study of genetics can also be used to serve to promote tolerance and highlight that we humans are not so different from one another. For example, genetic analysis revealed that there was little if any genetic differentiation between Hutus and Tutsis.1 Cultural differences and social classification created through colonialism fueled the divisions characterizing the Rwandan genocide. However, this fact also validates the authors’ insistence on society’s necessity to focus attention and resources towards social structure instead of being so fixated on genetic determinism.
This is the first time I have come across epigenetics. As stated in the article, “Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health,” negative environments have the ability to cause harm prenatally which affects the development and health of those individuals later on in their adult life. Due to social and economic factors, they might live in impoverished communities that continue to add stress, whether it is physical, mental or emotional, and those stresses have the ability to cause diseases such as cardiovascular disease within the African-American community.
With that being said, since negative environments can harm individuals, in environments that are replete with discrimination and hatred, people are at even higher risks of contracting diseases and illnesses. In the Tuskegee article, a group of African-Americans who had contracted syphilis were lured in and deceived with the promise of treatments and medical care, in order to conduct inhumane experiments on the long-term effects of syphilis. There was a deliberate attempt to withhold treatment in order for the patients to die and therefore acquire their bodies for autopsies. Though it is not outright “genocide,” it very similar to it since it is deliberately destroying a group of people without remorse because they were seen as “inferior” and therefore not worthy of treatment, all for the sake of science.
Racist views can have an effect on social policies which affect groups of people and that in turn can affect their health. Future generations are then harmed.
Article with more information:
When I was born, I allegedly had pointed ears like those of Captain Spock from Star Trek. Fortunately, my ears appear to be normal now but when I was younger, my Khmer mom used to joke around, telling me that there is a Cambodian superstition that a pregnant woman’s child will come to resemble whomever she views frequently on television during the course of her pregnancy. I always laughed it off. “Mom, that’s dumb. The genes I inherited from you and Dad determine my appearance!” This is an rather unlikely example but I believed that there was no way that environmental factors experienced by my mother would alter my genes and consequently affect my phenotypic expression.
However, introduction to epigenetics at my university contradicts my belief. Epigenetics/developmental biology is a relatively new field combining the classic nature versus nurture debate. Recent studies have shown that yes, chemical modifications due to environmental factors experienced by a mother can perpetuate changes in gene expression for her offspring. In the article “Epigenetics and the embodiment of race: developmental origins of US racial disparities in cardiovascular health.” by C.W. Kuzawa and Elizabeth Sweet, the authors discuss racial disparity in diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease, attributing its high prevalence within the African American population to plasticity in phenotype expression as well as social-environmental factors as opposed to genetics alone. The authors focus on how maternal stress/health influence biological systems during fetal development.
While most studies on transgenerational epigenetic have been conducted on animals, the authors briefly mention that there has been indirect evidence of epigenetically based alterations in Holocaust survivors. Survivors who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder had children with higher levels of cortisol in their blood. While we can make the assumption that stress was “learned,” epigenetics opens up the possibility that environmental factors can be passed on to the next generation. As the daughter of parents who went through the Cambodian genocide and lived in refugee camps during the 1970s, I thought it was an intriguing supposition. Perhaps more studies in epigenetics would help further our knowledge in understanding victims of trauma/genocide and future generations as well as highlight the importance of maternal health and controlling stress.
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2016824,00.html#ixzz1jcK3MEVs