Paved with Good Intentions

Heredity and Hope
The Case for Genetic Screening
Ruth Schwartz Cowan
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 304 pp.

In Heredity and Hope, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, has written an informative and readable history of genetic screening. She walks the reader through the complex and sometimes controversial practices that have created the new field of genetic medicine. As for the claim in the subtitle, The Case for Genetic Screening, well, on that score: caveat lector!

First, the historical account. In the first half of her book, the author recounts for the lay reader the story of the beginnings of genetic testing (for individuals) and screening (for groups) as they developed out of, and differentiated themselves from, the morally opprobrious eugenics movements of the first half of the twentieth century. The new forms of screening—prenatal, newborn, and carrier testing—have, as she sees it, goals that are significantly different from those of the eugenics movement. She points out (fairly convincingly for this nonhistorian) that the missions of eugenics and genetic screening are at cross-purposes with each other: eugenicists wanted to purify the gene pool by eliminating undesirable genetic traits—mainly through sterilization—while the techniques of genetic medicine have a pronatalist purpose in helping parents, particularly those who carry recessive genes for terrible diseases, to reduce suffering and have healthy babies. The second half...

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About the Author

Francis Kane is professor emeritus at Salisbury University and co-director of its Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. He is the author of Neither Beasts nor Gods (Southern Methodist University Press).