Medicine And The Media

Ethical issues in genetics ignored

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 01 February 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:384
  1. Pritpal S Tamber, student editor
  1. BMJ

    Genetic Choices? Science Museum, London

    Educating the public about current thinking in science is important. If it wasn't done it would further fuel the paranoia that “the powers that be know something that we don't.” No doubt that was the Science Museum's aim when it unveiled its new exhibition, Genetic Choices?

    The exhibition consists of posters, interactive displays, a short video, and a specially commissioned sculpture. The posters are both informative and eye catching, with their strong pink backgrounds and multicoloured chromosomes. Each begins with a question, followed by a short blurb about the subject, and ends with either another question or a statement designed to make you think. And, indeed, they do make you think.

    As one of the (many) hosts told me, the challenge was to take a vast amount of information and present it in a concise, accessible, and easy to understand format. They have done this well. I found myself wondering whether I would want to know if I had a genetic disease that would start in middle age (such as Huntingdon's chorea) or if I was passing a genetic condition on to my unborn child. And, being of an ethnic group myself, I was impressed to see information on genetic diseases in ethnic groups, like the Jewish population and Tay-Sachs disease and sickle cell anaemia in Afro-Caribbeans. So far so good.

    The interactive displays were interesting, if only because they presented information in a different format, perhaps designed to stop visitors getting bored. There were two touch screen displays that together covered the essential questions on cystic fibrosis, Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, Huntington's chorea, heart disease, and sickle cell anaemia. There was also a curious vertical wheel that had four discs inside–two orange and two white. The orange discs represented a recessive gene for cystic fibrosis while the white ones were “normal.” The idea was to rotate the wheel to make the discs collide with the purposely placed obstacles and ricochet their way to the bottom. The two discs that arrive at the bottom first give you the genetic make up of the child–mimicking the random nature of inheritance from two carrier parents. Unfortunately, I got two oranges. Still, so far so good.

    But at this point I had a real yearning for ethics–unusual for a medical student. Most people have an insight into genetics through the media. The most obvious, though dramatically exaggerated, example of this is Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg's film written by (Dr) Michael Crichton. Although most will say “it's only a film,” what it did do, albeit rather briefly, was raise the all important question that went something like: “Your scientists were so busy wondering whether they could, they didn't stop to think whether they should.” It's this question that is inadequately answered in the exhibit. The closest we get is a poster that says, “The future of genetic testing depends on how tests are legislated and controlled as well as on the progress made in the science of testing.”


    Genetic Choices? Eye catching but not soul searching.


    By far the most interesting part of the exhibit was a sculpture of a fetus in a womb-like case fed through a wire rather than an umbilical cord. It sat, symbolically, on what appeared to be a mountain top, giving the impression of the creation of a “superchild.” Was genetics taking us in the direction of designer babies? Are we talking about perfecting the human race? Are advances in genetics an unfair tampering with the “survival of the fittest” rules in the game of life? It was a shame that these questions that were tentatively raised by the exhibit were never really explored.

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