Bioethicist sees cautionary
tale in clash of ethics, science
By Anne Bromley
bioethicist Paul Lombardo points out that the same day Nature
and Science magazines reported that the sequence of human genes
had been completely mapped, Virginia papers covered the state
legislatures passage of a resolution expressing regret for
the government-sanctioned sterilization of more than 8,000 citizens
of the Commonwealth.
by Jenny Gerow
bioethicist Paul Lombardo stands next to the road marker on
Preston Ave. that explains the precedent-setting case, Buck
v. Bell, which enacted eugenic sterilization laws.
people probably werent thinking about the historical connections
between genetics and its pseudo-scientific cousin, eugenics, a
theory that humanity could be improved by getting rid of social
problems thought to be solely hereditary.
Lombardo was fully aware of how science and politics are a volatile
mix. Eugenics provides a cautionary tale worth telling, and he
has spent the greater part of his career as a legal scholar and
bioethicist doing just that.
who directs the Law and Medicine Program of the Center
for Biomedical Ethics, said the practice of eugenics casts
a long shadow on the revolutionary work being done in genetics.
idea that something promises to alleviate human suffering and
debilitation is exciting. It may appear to be the height of medical
achievement and compassion. But one thing neither science nor
society does well is predicting how scientific discoveries
will play out, Lombardo said.
time you come up with a condition thats horrific, you can
find a case of someone who has survived that illness and
gone on to have a productive or successful life, Lombardo said.
was embraced by many scientists and politicians in the first half
of the 20th century, including the Nazis. In addition to the sexual
sterilization policy, immigration was restricted and interracial
marriage was prohibited. A total of about 60,000 Americans were
sterilized against their will, some without even knowing. Also
considered undesirable hereditary traits that should be weeded
out were epilepsy, deafness and blindness.
1924, unmarried 17-year-old Carrie Buck became pregnant, and her
foster parents sent her away to the State Colony for Epileptics
and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg. The child of a single mother,
she was to be sterilized to avoid reproducing what were considered
inherited traits, including immorality and low intelligence. Hers
was the test case of the new law that went to the U.S. Supreme
Laughlin, one of the eugenics movements most vociferous
proponents, provided a deposition that characterized the Buck
family as among these people [who] belong to the shiftless,
ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.
A social worker examining Carries daughter, Vivian, six
months old at the time, said the baby was not quite normal.
his opinion allowing the procedure, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
wrote, three generations of imbeciles are enough.
thing is, Carrie was raped by a relative of her foster parents,
a young man who was never heard from again, said Lombardo, who
was able to interview Carrie in 1983. He agreed with other reports
that she was not mentally deficient. Her daughter, Vivian, had
died of a childhood illness at the age of 8, but her school report
cards show she performed decently.
researchers get closer to understanding genetics and promises
of breakthrough treatments and cures get hyped to the nth degree,
Lombardo asks, Three generations of what are enough?
He believes we must continue to ask that question and examine
what we expect of each other.