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Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #1: How “Better Babies” Became “Fitter Families”

Posted by Natalie Oveyssi on July 7th, 2015

Fitter Family contest medal, awarded by the American Eugenics Society, 1920s. Source: Center for Genetics and Society

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Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.

Eugenics became a popular ideology in the United States beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century. Concerned with producing a stronger and fitter population through the careful and often coercive control of reproductive behavior, eugenics captured the attention of a citizenry eager to use science to solve its social problems.

Many scholars divide the early eugenics movement into two branches: “positive” and “negative” eugenics. Positive eugenics was the encouragement of reproduction for those believed to be of superior hereditary stock, in contrast to “negative” eugenics, the discouragement or prevention of reproduction for those deemed hereditarily “unfit.” Many eugenists, as eugenic advocates were known, believed that the goals of positive eugenics could be achieved voluntarily through education campaigns, while negative eugenic aims would require more coercive means for attainment, such as mass sterilization and immigration quotas.

Baby health contests at agricultural and state fairs perhaps most vividly exemplify popular campaigns for positive eugenics. Judges at these contests examined infant contestants according to a set of criteria for physical health and intelligence that included factors such as shape of the head, width between the eyes, condition of tonsils, strength of spine, and ability to walk or crawl. They quite tellingly employed scorecards derived from those used to judge livestock. First begun in 1908 at the Louisiana State Fair, baby health contests spread to forty states within just a few years.

However, somewhere along the eugenic line, "Better Baby" contests, as they were known, morphed into "Fitter Family" contests that examined not only the baby but the whole family. Scholars have attributed this change to a shift in focus from the health and development of the child towards a more comprehensive look at hereditary history, in keeping with the principles of eugenics. But how exactly did this change transpire?

Mary T. Watts, co-founder of the Better Baby contests, revealed the impetus for the transformation in an address at the Thirty-third Annual Meeting of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions in 1923.

As Watts recounted, shortly after she began the Better Baby contests in her home state of Iowa, she received a letter in the mail from none other than Charles B. Davenport, a titan of the eugenics field. Davenport wielded significant influence as the director of the Biological Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, the Eugenics Record Office, and the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s Station for Experimental Evolution.

On a one-cent postcard, Davenport had written only, “You should give 50 per cent to heredity before you begin to score a baby.” Overwhelmed by answering inquiries from intended Better Baby organizers across the United States and Canada, Watts placed the letter aside and forgot about it.

The following year, she received yet another terse postcard from Davenport with the single ominous sentence, “A prize winner at two may be an epileptic at ten.” Watts, who had since become aware of Davenport’s authority in eugenics, understandably found the postcard “so startling it could not be ignored.”

Watts shared Davenport’s letter with her Better Baby co-founder, Dr. Florence Sherbon, who noted that many prize-winning babies likely had alcoholic fathers, diseased mothers, or insane relatives. Perhaps Davenport was on the right track; rather than examining babies alone, in order to truly test for eugenic ideals, judges must look to a baby’s family as well. How else could they tell if a baby was “better”?

Watts and Sherbon decided that they wanted to insert family and heredity tests into the contests, but were concerned that doing so would eliminate their popular appeal. It took the pair six years to develop a satisfactory approach. They presented their plan for Fitter Family contests to a group of experts who offered a mixed response.

The experts universally approved of the reasoning behind the new plan, but felt that Fitter Families would not be able to replicate the smashing success of Better Babies. Watts recalled that the experts said, “You can bring the baby to the fair because he cannot help himself, but you will never get the fathers and mothers to a fair for physical and mental examinations.” The experts were especially concerned that adults would not submit to the Wassermann test for syphilis, presumably because some would not want their spouses to discover the results.

Nonetheless, the experts assisted in making a scorecard to judge not only the babies’ physical and mental qualifications, but also those of their parents and siblings. All were shocked when twenty families entered the first Fitter Family contest at the Kansas Free Fair in 1920. The Fitter Family contest organizers continued their newfound relationship with Davenport well into the 1920s, as Sherbon and Watts sought his advice on their family history forms and contest procedures.

Critics of the Fitter Family plan had said that “we could never hope to interest educated, self-respecting families in physical examinations for adults at a fair ground.” But, Watts stated proudly in her 1923 address, the Fitter Family contests were thriving. And the organizers and contestants—as well as the eugenic cause—could thank Charles Davenport, whose postcards had provided the spark that lit the fire.

1. Lovett, Laura L. “‘Fitter Families for Future Firesides’: Florence Sherbon and Popular Eugenics.” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 69–85. JSTOR.

2. Selden, Steven. “Transforming Better Babies Into Fitter Families: Archival Resources and the History of the American Eugenics Movement, 1908–1930.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149, no. 2 (June 2005): 199. EBSCO host.

3. Watts, Mary. "Fitter Families for Future Firesides." Billboard 35, no. 50 (Dec. 15, 1923): 230–231. ProQuest.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Fond Farewells and Warm Welcomes at the Center for Genetics and Society

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on June 18th, 2015

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Changes are in the works here at the Center for Genetics and Society, both on our staff and our Advisory Board.

On the staff side, Jessica Cussins will be leaving her position at CGS at the end of the month, and starting a Master’s program in public policy this fall at the Harvard Kennedy School. Jessica started at CGS in 2012 as a summer staff associate, and quickly grew to be a key and deeply valued member of our team. As readers of Biopolitical Times know well, she is an insightful analyst and compelling writer about all things biopolitical. We’ve also benefited greatly from her research and policy analysis skills (is there anyone who knows more than Jessica about the unfortunate push for approval of “three-person IVF” in the UK?). We’ll greatly miss Jessica’s day-to-day presence in the office, but are very glad that she plans to stay connected, doing some writing and researching for CGS in a consulting role. And we’re thrilled about the exciting new adventures that await her.

CGS’s Advisory Board plays a vital and much appreciated role in our organizational strategizing, development and culture. We recently welcomed a wonderful new member, Alexandra Minna Stern. Alex is a historian of science and medicine and Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and GynecologyAmerican Culture, and History at the University of Michigan. Her research and public scholarship has focused on the history of eugenics and the uses and misuses of genetics in the United States and Latin America. She is the author most recently, of Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), and the award-wining Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005). A new edition of Eugenic Nation will be published in December 2015; the publisher describes it as “radically new and relevant,” connecting  “the eugenic past to the genomic present with attention to the ethical and social implications of emerging genetic technologies.”

Another recent change on the CGS Advisory Board is in the bittersweet vein: David Winickoff has stepped down from the board and taken a leave from his position as Associate Professor in Bioethics and Society at UC Berkeley, in order to accept a temporary post as Senior Policy Analyst at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, where he will lead the new Working Party on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Converging Technologies. We deeply appreciate his many contributions to CGS’s work, and look forward to staying in touch as he embarks on a new professional chapter. 

Back in the office, we’re fortunate to be joined this summer by two terrific staff associates, Jonathan Chernogouz and Natalie Oveyssi. Jonathan is with us full time until he begins his junior year at UC Berkeley majoring in political economy and minoring in public policy.  He has been working at CGS part time since he was a sophomore, and has been interested in the history of eugenics since learning about the movement in high school. Natalie, who will be working part time, graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley in spring 2015 with a B.A. in Sociology.  She served for two years as editor-in-chief of UC Berkeley's undergraduate humanities and social science research journal, and was awarded highest honors for her thesis on women's empowerment and the early twentieth-century American eugenics movement.

We expect to have more news to share shortly about new staff. Stay tuned!

The Science and Ethics of Genetically Engineered Human DNA

Posted by Pete Shanks on June 18th, 2015

Subcommittee hearing 16 June, 2015

Discussion of germline genetic modification continues, most recently in the House of Representatives Research and Technology Subcommittee, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The Subcommittee's June 16 hearing gives this post its title. Video is available, as are pdfs of the four witness statements.

Victor J. Dzau, President of the Institute of Medicine (soon to be the National Academy of Medicine) outlined the plans for the Academies Initiative. There will be two parts to this:

  • a global summit to examine recent scientific developments in human gene editing and the range of associated ethical and governance issues
  • a concurrent expert committee to conduct a comprehensive study on human gene-editing research

The exact date of the global summit, which will be held in "late fall," has not yet been announced, and the study, which may take a year, does not yet have a final "statement of task." The day before the hearing the advisory group for the initiative was announced. The 14 members include six of the 18 signatories of the March paper in Science that called for a moratorium (including David Baltimore, Paul Berg and Jennifer Doudna; notable omissions include George Church and Hank Greely) but none of the 5 authors of the stronger Nature paper. All but two members are American, the exceptions being Robin Lovell-Badge (UK) and Xu Zhihong (China).

The other witnesses at the Subcommittee hearing were Doudna, who gave a brief overview [pdf] of gene editing and its possible applications; Elizabeth McNally, who notably included [pdf] the perspective of families who might want to apply such technologies; and Jeffrey Kahn, whose presentation [pdf] included a useful overview of US regulatory mechanisms but seemed to overlook previous international agreements that might serve as models.

The meeting was well attended and the subcommittee members seemed engaged in the topic, if somewhat unclear how best to proceed.

Away from Capitol Hill, there have been some other noteworthy developments:

  • Eric Lander wrote a thoughtful perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluding that (except possibly for a few severe monogenic diseases) for the foreseeable future germline editing should be banned.
  • Margaret Somerville in the Toronto Globe and Mail raised questions of eugenics and a society of the "gene rich" and "gene poor," and expressed strong disagreement with Steven Pinker.
  • The Lancet editorially endorsed the Academies initiatives.
  • CIRM, the California Stem Cell agency, will hold a "public workshop" on November 3 in the Los Angeles area, to see if these "red hot" developments might require a change in their policies.
  • CGS and others have cautiously welcomed the Note on Genome Editing from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, but critics from the National Review and the Center for Bioethics and Culture  complained that it was "the usual yadda, yadda, yadda" and would actually open the door to germline interventions.

Meanwhile, research continues. CRISPR has been used experimentally on the hepatitis B virus, and also applied to zebrafish. Agriculturalists are actively discussing genome editing in animals, to make them resistant to disease and other threats from climate change.

Nature News published a good overview of "CRISPR, the disruptor." Next Big Future has a useful comparison of the costs and benefits of using CRISPR rather than Zinc Fingers or TALENs. Finally, Reuters published a thought-provoking report, inspired by the (failed) attempt to modify human embryos, titled:

China's big biotech bet starting to pay off

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

UK Seeks Regulatory Advice for “Mitochondrial Replacement,” Fails to Mention Cross-Generational Implications

Posted by Jessica Cussins on June 17th, 2015

Doug Turnbull, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

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How does one go about regulating the world’s first cross-generational biological experiment in human germline modification? The regulating body in charge isn’t exactly sure. They’re seeking input via an online survey by July 1, 2015.

The technique in question, called mitochondrial replacement or three-person IVF, would combine genetic material from three different people into a single embryo, causing permanent changes to the human germline, in the hopes of allowing a woman to have a child who resembles her in all but her mitochondrial disorder.

The UK actually has a law against genetically modifying human embryos for reproductive purposes, but a tireless push from a small group of the UK science elite over many years ultimately swayed Members of Parliament in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to allow a limited exception to be made for only this technique, and for only the prevention of serious mitochondrial disorders.

Arguably, those campaigning for this political shift didn’t always fight fair – safety requirements such as clinical testing on non-human primates were discarded half-way through when experiments failed to work; the phrase “genetic modification” was redefined to diminish the severity of the techniques; the impact of mitochondria on a wide array of traits was repeatedly misrepresented; and evidence of serious safety and efficacy concerns was routinely downplayed, if not outright ignored.

Now, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) faces the daunting task of having to determine a system to regulate these techniques within fertility clinics before the regulations come into force October 29, 2015.They are currently seeking views from experts.

But if you look at either the “lay summary” or the “background document” they have prepared, you would not necessarily understand why anyone cared so much about these technologies in the first place. Nowhere in either of these documents does it actually explain that these technologies result in human germline modification – something people just might care about since it is banned by every country that has ever considered it, as well as the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine.

Because of this omission, they have a hard time getting to the heart of the matter – how does one regulate a cross-generational biological experiment?

Instead, their online survey seeks input on more discrete questions. For example, they ask how they should license a clinic to undertake the techniques. This feels somewhat disingenuous since in their lay summary they admit that only one research team in the UK is likely to be in a position to offer this at the moment (surely, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University.)

They also ask how each patient should be determined to be at “particular risk” of passing mitochondrial disease to a child – a requirement of the regulations. However, they say that the presence of “a mutation” in a woman’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is enough to satisfy this requirement. Now, maybe I’m missing something. But I’m pretty sure that a substantial number of women alive today have mtDNA mutations, and in the vast majority of cases these DNA changes do not cause disease. More precise language would reflect the fact that risk is caused much more specifically by a “known disease-causing mutation in one of the 37 mitochondrial genes.” And that typically, problems only occur once a certain mutation threshold has been passed – say, if there are mutations in more than 20% of your mtDNA.

As for follow-up studies, which “many experts have recommended,” the HFEA is deferring to the clinics. They plan to encourage clinics to ask their patients to take part in studies of the clinics’ design, but will not require the patient or resulting child to take part. However, if a clinic becomes aware that a child has been born with any disease or genetic abnormality, the clinic will be required by law to report this as an “adverse incident.” Of course, in utero genetic testing could find many of these issues before the child is born, in which case the public would be unlikely to be made aware. Moreover, the genetic changes made to that child will be passed onto future generations, but there have been no recommendations for how to monitor any long-term, cross-generational issues that may arise.

For more information on the current regulatory process by the HFEA, see here. Fill out the online survey by July 1, and if you’re in the UK, consider attending their public workshop being held June 23. But be warned: they “are not asking you to comment on the wider ethical and scientific issues involved, nor the statutory framework.”

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