More on the difference gene

Last week I wrote about a new, cheap test that will tell prospective parents whether their children are at risk of having one of 100 or so different genetic conditions, including two forms of dwarfism.

Today I expand on that theme in the Guardian, arguing that such screening is tied to our conflicted feelings about difference.

Targeting the difference gene

A major theme of my 2003 book on dwarfism, “Little People,” was what would happen in the not-too-distant future when inexpensive tests would be developed to detect the 100 or so most common genetic conditions in utero. Would dwarfism and other human variations be eliminated? How would it change our uneasy relationship with difference, which we both celebrate and fear?

Now it’s starting to happen. The New York Times reports today that a company called Counsyl has come up with exactly such a test. It costs only $698 for couples. It’s not an in utero test; rather, the aim is to tell would-be parents whether they are carriers of genetic conditions. And there are questions as to how effective the test will be. But we have finally reached the starting line.

The most common form of dwarfism, achondroplasia, is not on the list, and there’s a good reason for that: it’s a dominant condition. If you have the gene, you’re a dwarf, and a carrier by definition. But diastrophic dysplasia and cartilage-hair hypoplasia, recessive forms of dwarfism, are on the list. (For those of you who have seen “Little People, Big World,” Amy and Zach Roloff have achondroplasia. Matt Roloff has diastrophic dysplasia.)

And what are you supposed to do if you learn you are a carrier? Counsyl calls these “Preventable Genetic Diseases Covered by the Universal Genetic Test.” We get the picture, and it’s mighty chilling.

We are all entitled to as much information as possible. It’s up to each of us to decide what to do with that information. Nevertheless, you can’t help but be concerned about where this is going to lead.