All in our genes ?

It seems that rarely a week goes by without genetics being in the news. Sometimes they claim to have discovered a "cure" for a genetically related disability, sometimes they claim to have discovered a gene for a type of behaviour, sometimes the spectre of discrimination based on genetic tests is raised. It becomes difficult to fathom out how much is fact and how much is fiction ...

Firstly, Red Disability is not - im principle - against the use of gene therapy. If medical techniques exist which may be of benefit to people - whether disabled or otherwise - we would not advocate a complete ban on their use. Provided, of course, that they have been proved to be safe and are not imposed on people against their will.

At the same time, however, we believe that genetic research is grossly over-rated. As with anything which focuses on the "medical model" of disability, it relies on the fact that headline-grabbing claims of "miracle cures" are better PR for the capitalist system than social adaptations which would allow people with disabilities to participate fully in society, without needing to be "cured". In addition, by focusing on an individual's genes, the handicaps associated with disability become the burden of the individual, and capitalist society is let off the hook - along with its inability to accommodate disability.

No surprise, then, that there have been some rather ridiculous assertations about the role of genes in influencing behavioural patterns. Ever since a "gay gene" was supposedly discovered in the mid-1990's, there have been claims of genes for homelessness, criminality, even happiness. Intelligence has also been attributed to genetics, leading to the hideously racist and fundamentally flawed The Bell Curve book by the arch right-winger Charles Murray.

As it happens, it was the completion of the Human Genome project which delivered a (hopefully fatal) blow to these myths. In fact, there are far fewer genes in a human cell than originally thought, and far too few to determine sexuality, intelligence, behaviour, etc. The main causes of behaviour are social and environmental factors - hence the fact that crime reaches its peak in times of peaks of unemployment and poverty.

Likewise, from a disability point of view - even using the medical model - genetics will never be a cure-all for the handicaps associated with disability. Most disabilities are not due to natural causes - ,any disabilities occur as a result of accidents, war, workplace negligence, etc. This makes it all the more appalling that the same system which causes these accidents them discriminates, both directly and indirectly, against people who then become disabled. And it makes all the hype of "medical cures" created by these "nice, caring" multinational drug companies who invest their money in this "ground breaking research" (so they can then make huge profits on the patented drugs etc) all the more sickeningly hypocritical.

Especially when you consider that genetic tests are not purely there for detecting medical conditions with the aim or curing them. The main beneficiaries of genetic tests are likely to be insurance companies and employers, who can use results of such tests to discriminate against people with certain genes which may pre-dispose them to certain medical conditions. Already discrimination against people with disabilities is a problem, just think what would happen if employers, insurers etc were able to discriminate against people who may become disabled. It seems like 1984 and 1939 rolled into one ...

In late 2001, a deal was reached in which insurers pledged not to use the results of genetic testing to discriminate against applicants, for 5 years. We at Red Disability think that is not good enough. Any use of genetic testing for non-medical reasons should be banned altogether.

We also believe that the money being spent on genetic, and other medical, "treatments" for disability would be far better spent on ensuring that people with disabilities have access to facilities in the community.

After all, regardless of disability or genetic variations, we all belong to the same human race !

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