Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Genes, Behavior, and the Media

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Genes, Behavior, and the Media

Article excerpt

When the Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched Genetics and Human Behaviour: The Ethical Context, a 250-page report that considers ethical issues raised by genetic research into normal human behavioral traits, we who had worked on the report were well aware of the sensitivity of the topic and of the interest it generated among journalists. The report takes up one of the tasks bioethics has set itself--elucidating and analyzing the implications of scientific developments--so we were keen that it should be accurately represented in the media. Our experience shows the difficulty of doing that.

We decided that two issues in particular were likely to be picked up by journalists, regardless of whether we highlighted them: prenatal selection on the basis of behavioral traits, and legal responsibility. We produced a press release that carefully explained our position on these points rather than one aimed at maximizing coverage. So far, we stated, no genetic variant has been shown conclusively to influence traits such as antisocial behavior, intelligence in the normal range, or sexual orientation. We stressed that it is misleading to talk of "a gene for X" or to imply that genes determine behavioral outcomes.

As it turned out, most journalists focused on our recommendations regarding legal responsibility. Here is our press release on this issue: "genetic information about behaviours within the normal range does not absolve an individual from responsibility for an offence. However, the information could be taken into account by judges when sentencing, in the same way that environmental factors, such as poverty or an abusive childhood, may be considered . …

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