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An industry-funded "awareness" campaign

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 30th, 2009

An intriguing variety of marketing involves promotion through public awareness campaigns. Sometimes these campaigns are undertaken by sectors with numerous small producers, none large enough to advertise on its own - think Garrison Keillor's imaginary "Ketchup Advisory Council." Other times the motivation is that consumers may not feel comfortable receiving overt advertising for a particular product or service. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, "help make people aware" that they may unknowingly suffer from a condition or carry a potentially dangerous gene.

Newsweek's Claudia Kalb reports on a new campaign to educate women about their so-called "biological clocks." While her story focuses on the campaign's informal, Web 2.0, and viral nature, her final paragraph touches on the self-interest of its organizer, the American Fertility Association, and its primary funder, a pharmaceutical company that makes drugs used in assisted reproduction:

Like other informational events, the AFA's program isn't purely altruistic. It was launched with $25,000 from drug maker Schering-Plough, which makes the fertility drug Follistim. Other sponsors include a New York-based pharmacy that provides fertility prescriptions and several fertility clinics. Doctors who lead the discussions are asked to make a donation to the AFA, and gift bags that will be given to attendees will contain handouts from the sponsors as well as educational information. [AFA's director of development Corey] Whelan is matter-of-fact about the AFA's need for financial support for their infertility prevention program, which is free to the women who attend. But, she insists, "We're trying to decrease the patient population, not increase it."
While the AFA engages in a number of broad fertility-related activities, such as adoption referrals, it is primarily an industry organization, as its list of sponsors indicates.  I am skeptical that the AFA and its new fertility "awareness campaign" are meant to "decrease the patient population." This has the appearance of an attempt to drum up business for profitable high-tech solutions.

This has been tried before. In 2001, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine launched a similar campaign. (In fact, its website is still online.) Although the ASRM is more focused on assisted reproduction than the AFA, its campaign emphasized that behaviors such as smoking and unsafe sex can affect one's fertility later. Yet then, some  feminists were uncomfortable with the ASRM’s message. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), said:
Certainly women are well aware of the so-called biological clock. And I don't think that we need any more pressure to have kids.
She wrote in an op-ed:
NOW commends the good doctors for attempting to educate women about their health, but we think they are going about it in the wrong way - by blaming individual women and their behavior for a problem that is caused by many factors, some behavioral, but most not. The ASRM gets free publicity, and women are, once again, made to feel anxious about their bodies and guilty about their choices.
Greater understanding among prospective parents about the inevitable decline of their fertility would be a good thing. Too often, a mistaken image of perpetual fecundity is promoted by assisted reproduction technologies and by media coverage of celebrities producing children well into their forties with no apparent problems. Unfortunately, an industry endeavor such as the AFA's will likely continue the trend.

From cellular reprogramming to human genetic modification

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 30th, 2009

Amander Clark, whose lab performed the research

A team of stem cell researchers has produced precursors to gametes from induced pluripotent stem (or iPS) cells, which in turn are reprogrammed from normal body cells. The health blog of the Los Angeles Times reports on an upcoming scientific paper from a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.

My colleague Marcy Darnovsky has previously expressed concerns (1 [PDF], 2) about artificial gametes, particularly around safety issues and the promotion to gays and lesbians of extreme - and risky - methods of assisted reproduction. This latest development raises another: While iPS cells may resolve quandaries about embryo destruction and egg acquisition, they could also be a path towards human genetic modification. Under the present technology, in fact, iPS cells are produced via genetic modification. Of course, any proposals to create babies through artificial gametes, especially with the current genetic modification and viral vector methods, are a long way off. But when, and if, they come, let's hope that policies to prevent potential abuses are in place.

[HT to AJOB Blog.]

Gene of the Week: Popularity

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 29th, 2009

Scientific American leads an article, headlined "Do our genes make us popular?," with

Always the last one picked for kickball? Never get invites to the hottest parties? Blame Mom and Dad.

That's right, a new study says genes may influence whether or not you're popular.

That's just one of at least 156 news articles on the research.

Previous "genes of the week" on Biopolitical Times:

War Against the Weak – The Documentary

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on January 27th, 2009

Edwin Black’s award-winning book on the history and modern implications of the American Eugenics Movement is about to hit the silver screen. War Against the Weak the movie had its World Premiere over the weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The book offers a chilling and remarkably accessible look at the American eugenics movement by examining its origins and the cultural, political, and institutional practices that fostered its popularity in the early to mid 20th century. The filmmakers offer the following synopsis:

In the first three decades of the 20th Century, American corporate philanthropy, combined with the efforts of the scientific, academic and political elite, created the pseudoscience eugenics, and institutionalized race politics as national policy. The goal was to create a superior, white, Nordic race and obliterate virtually everyone else.

Under the Nazis, American eugenic principles were applied without restraint, careening out of control into the Reich's infamous genocide. American eugenicists openly supported Germany's program, with both financial and intellectual capital. Once WWII began, Nazi eugenics turned from mass sterilization and euthanasia to genocidal murder. War Against the Weak explores this complex relationship between American eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust.

While this documentary exploration of the history of eugenics is incredibly important and should make a profound contribution in educating the public, one can only hope that the filmmakers do not minimize one of the strongest points made by Black in his book: that many of the concerns raised by past attempts to breed better humans may be presenting themselves today through developments in reproductive and genetic technologies.  Too often we lose this context.

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