Dov Fox


Heredity and Hope: The Case for Genetic Screening. By Ruth Schwartz Cowan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. Pp. 304.

The word "eugenics" derives from the Greek words eu (Ευ) [beautiful] and gen (γεν) [relating to birth], or eugenes, which means "good in stock." In Heredity and Hope, historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan defends modem genetic testing-the new genetics, by distinguishing it from twentieth century eugenics - the old genetics. While we rightfully recoil from the old genetics, with its coercive methods and hateful motives, Cowan maintains that we should embrace the new genetics to enhance reproductive choice and promote the well-being of our offspring. In this Review I argue that the analogy between the old and new genetics can be less readily cast aside than Cowan appreciates.

In Part I, I discuss Cowan's historical arguments and theoretical commitments. In Part 1I, I argue that Cowan overlooks a crucial moral similarity between the old genetics and new genetics: namely, whatever the differences between the means by which each is carried out, both are biological approaches to solve what are in large part social ills. Part III concludes with two ways in which the new genetics, no less than the old, might undermine social equality for people with disabilities. First, the new genetics threatens to express demeaning judgments about the lives of persons with disabilities. Second, a tendency to treat disabilities as predominantly genetic problems worthy of reproductive prevention could weaken our collective willingness to welcome into the world those whose abilities fail to meet the demands of modem society.