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Racism and Genomes

Posted by Pete Shanks on January 9th, 2009


"We are all Armenians" -- Turks protest for justice

Recently there was theoretical discussion about analyzing the genomes of Presidential candidates. Now this prospect has moved much closer to reality -- in Turkey (h/t Jonathan Moreno at Science Progress). And the context is not medical but explicitly racist.

Behind it lies the enduring dispute about the Armenian "Great Catastrophe" of 1915, an ethic cleansing that most non-Turks regard as genocide. There are increasing calls in Turkey for an apology, which President Abdullah Gul has not endorsed but has refused to condemn. In response, a Turkish opposition politician, Canan Aritman, has "accused" Gul of having Armenian blood, and demanded that he undergo a genomic test, asserting:

"These days, scientists use DNA tests, not family trees, to identify ethnic identity."

On this detail, Aritman is not entirely wrong: Some ancestry-testing companies claim to validate membership in certain Native American tribes (which can lead to economic benefit). More generally, the business of finding your roots through genetic tests has increasing appeal, especially to African-Americans whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. as slaves. Much more horrific possibilities might include demands that someone take a Jewish ancestry test.

It's regrettable that Gul responded by taking the line that his family is "100% Muslim and Turk" rather than saying, as some wish he had that "it would make no difference if his granny had been an Armenian."

This particular storm may blow over; Aritman has been widely condemned for her racism. But it stands as a textbook example of the abuse of science to bolster prejudices.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:






CGS's favorite blog posts of 2008

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 8th, 2009


8.7, 8.5, 9.0, Wasn't paying attention, 8.5

Continuing the theme of looking back at 2008, a panel of critical judges (ourselves) voted for our favorite posts at Biopolitical Times:

One gene, two genes; Red genes, blue genes
by Jesse Reynolds, February 14th, 2008
The cover of a recent issue of New Scientist conveniently captures almost all that is wrong with media coverage of genetic discoveries.

PhRMA and BIO self-image: Downtrodden and besieged
by Marcy Darnovsky, February 25th, 2008
Pity the poor bioscience industry.

Who's Biting Who?: Headlines on white surrogate for Asian couple
by Osagie Obasogie, March 10th, 2008
When it comes to reproductive technologies, race is increasingly becoming the dividing line between journalists' view of the ordinary and the extraordinary.

The Many Hats of Robert Klein
by Jesse Reynolds, April 11th, 2008
The chair of California's multi-billion dollar stem cell research agency tries to juggle many hats, including those of advocate and lobbyist.

Breadline or egg line?
by Marcy Darnovsky, August 6th, 2008
More women are trying to deal with the economic downturn by selling their eggs or signing up as surrogates.

The spitterati and trickle-down genomics
by Marcy Darnovsky, September 17th, 2008
23andMe's use of celebrities and glitzy parties to promote its direct-to-consumer DNA tests has deflected attention from the concerns and criticisms of physicians, bioethicists, and regulators.

Bioethics for Profit?
by Pete Shanks, October 14th, 2008
Is there something problematic about an explicitly for-profit bioethics operation that is closely linked to a prominent academic journal?

H+ ≈ Humanity+ ≈ Humanity Plus ≈ WTA ≈ Extropy (etc.)
by Pete Shanks, October 20th, 2008
The relaunch of the World Transhumanist Association, now Humanity Plus, stumbles on, with the launch of H+ Magazine.

All the President's Genes?
by Pete Shanks, November 5th, 2008
Some are proposing that we begin to judge candidates by genotype instead of superficial aspects of phenotype

The rich are different from you and me: Yes, they hire surrogates
by Jesse Reynolds, December 1st, 2008
The cover story of last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine addresses the issue of the commercialization of assisted reproduction in a manner that is simultaneously bluntly honest and painfully naive.

Picking the Best Baby
by Jesse Reynolds, December 2nd, 2008
With the price of genetic sequencing plummeting, technologies enabling prospective parents and clinicians to pick the genetically "best" potential child may become feasible.

DNA Databases: Another Human Rights Violation in the U.S. Criminal Justice System?
by Osagie K. Obasogie, December 9th, 2008
A ruling last week out of the European Court of Human Rights suggests that the US might be engaging in a human rights violation by collecting and retaining DNA profiles from arrestees never convicted of a crime.





60 Minutes Explores Developments in 'Mind Reading'

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 7th, 2009


The blog posts here at Biopolitical Times focus in large part on the social and ethical implications of developments in reproductive and genetic technologies such as embryonic stem cell research, reproductive cloning, and variations of human genetic engineering. But a number of new technologies raise issues that are just as important for how we think about the evolving relationship between technology and social justice.

An important case in point is the emerging field of neuroscience, which is quickly making claims that fMRI technologies can be used to, in colloquial terms, read people’s minds. Check out the video below for 60 Minutes’ review of the field. 


Watch CBS Videos Online





The Top Stories of 2008

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 6th, 2009


Now that 2008 is behind us, below I try to capture the top ten news stories in  reproductive and genetic technologies.

Consumer genetic testing received and enormous amount of media coverage. Most media accounts fawned over the purportedly recreational wide-genome scans such as 23andMe, in part due to these companies' efforts to present their products as the must-have item of the hip and intellectual elite (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Some looked forward to, and even purchased, complete genome scans (1, 2, 3). Consumers also saw a greater number of over-the-counter products, such as a paternity tests and test that supposedly assesses children's talents (1, 2), as well as a rise in direct-to-consumer advertising. Many experts expressed concerns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), particularly about how people may respond to medically significant information in the absence of counseling as well as the tests' accuracy (1, 2). Regulators in California and New York intervened (1, 2, 3), but eventually backed off. In perhaps-related developments, the Internet giant Google, which was something of a launching pad for 23andMe, entered the health records market and backed an effort to scan thousands of genomes (1, 2, 3).

The first clonal and genetically modified human embryos were reported. The former was created by a small southern California biotech firm, Stemagen (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Although it was intended for research, Stemagen scientists did not attempt to derive stem cells from it. This task appears to have been recently replicated by a team in China. The first genetically modified human embryo was created in 2007, but uncovered in 2008 (1, 2, 3).

The new reprogramming method of creating fully pluripotent stem cells from normal body cells continued to make progress (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), although some scientists and observers seemed to resist acknowledging their potential and progress (1, 2, 3).

DNA forensics came under fire. Maura Dolan and Jason Felch at the Los Angeles Times produced an impressive investigative series about the limitations of DNA forensic databases (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and other papers published pieces as well (1, 2, 3). After expanding its database, as well as hearing recommendations that children be included, the United Kingdom was rebuked by the European High for Human Rights. Meanwhile, both the US federal government and California are expanding their forensic DNA databases to include people arrested but not convicted (1, 2).

Surrogacy made the news (1, 2, 3, 4) particularly the outsourcing of commercial surrogacy to India (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) That nation later took steps towards regulation of the half-billion-dollar industry (1, 2).

The first "race-based medicine" flopped. NitroMed stopped marketing BiDil, which had failed meet expectations, and then sold it off entirely. However, more race-based drugs are in development.

The global financial crisis struck the biotech industry, causes strains at enterprises including the controversial stem cell company Advanced Cell Technology (1, 2), a prominent consumer genetics firm, and the California stem cell research agency. Meanwhile, there were several reports of increased numbers of women lining up to provide eggs and surrogacy for cash (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The United Nations seems to be gearing up for reviving attempts towards a binding international treaty prohibiting human reproductive cloning (1, 2)

The United Kingdom overhauled its regulation of reproductive technologies and embryo research (1, 2, 3, 4). The most contentious point was the permissibility of creating animal-human hybrid embryos for stem cell research, which scientists succeeded in creating just before the bills' debate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). The prime minister got squarely behind the bill (1, 2, 3), which was highly controversial.

Pet and animal cloning made a surprising comeback after a relatively quiet 2007. Europe and the US debated whether to allow cloned meat in their food supplies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The feasibility of cloning endangered and extinct species - such as a mammoth - were discussed in serious fora (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The research team behind disgraced researcher Woo-Suk Hwang split into two competing factions, each with its own dog cloning company, and each with its publicity gimmicks (1, 2, 3, 4). The public face of this endeavor was a former beauty pageant queen who is on the lam. And while you are getting a pet cloned, you can consider having him or her genetically enhanced. A strange year indeed.





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