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Bioethicist sees cautionary tale in clash of ethics, science

By Anne Bromley

U.Va. 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 legislature’s passage of a resolution expressing regret for the government-sanctioned sterilization of more than 8,000 citizens of the Commonwealth.

Paul Lombardo
Photo by Jenny Gerow
U.Va. 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.

Most people probably weren’t 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.

But 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.

Lombardo, 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.

The 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.

“Every time you come up with a condition that’s 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.

Eugenics 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.

In 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 Court.

Harry Laughlin, one of the eugenics movement’s 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 Carrie’s daughter, Vivian, six months old at the time, said the baby was “not quite normal.”

In his opinion allowing the procedure, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The 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.

As 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.


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