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Opinion: Is Genomics perpetuating inequality?

“Genomics is crowding out ways of reducing inequality” is just one of the overarching messages of the latest report by The Hastings Center.

For “All of Us?” On the Weight of Genomic Knowledge is a new Hastings Center Special report, where they take a critical look at the role of genomics in perpetuating racism and inequality.

The Hastings Center is an independent bioethics research institute based in New York. The overarching premise of the report is that genomics “can be a weight, a weight that has the potential to thwart – and historically has thwarted – medicine from genuinely advancing justice”, according to Joel Michael Reynolds, co-editor of the report.

Asking if the focus on genomics is crowding out other effective ways of reducing health inequity, and warning that genomic knowledge can shore up scientifically discredited conceptions of race, which could help establish structural racism, the report critically analyses the bioethics of genomics. The report also warns that treating social behaviours as genetic or based on racial classifications can spur on eugenics and concludes that the benefits of genetic advances will likely only benefit the richest in society, further exacerbating inequality.

Consisting of 10 essays written by scholars, the report highlights several ways that genomics can perpetuate inequality, such as:

  • Genomics crowding out ways of reducing health inequity
  • Health disparities can quickly become attributed to the result of DNA differences, rather than intergenerational health effects of societal racism
  • Genomics research can reinforce the notion that race is determined by genes, rather than measuring the environment and social conditions in meaningful ways.
  • Genomic knowledge will likely help more financially privileged people.

Essays include:

“Conceptualising race in the genomic age”, by Catherine Bliss. The essay argues that the concept of race presumes there are specific genetic groups of white, black, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander which will lead to social inequality.

Another of the essays, written by Joel Michael Reynolds is titled “Health for Whom? Bioethics and the Challenge of Justice for Genomic Medicine”.

Access the full report.

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