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I love waking up to bad science in the morning paper

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There’s a story on the front page of today’s Philadelphia Inquirer that really frosts my flakes. Titled “A huge step on genome of fetuses” in our edition, it’s actually (disconcertingly) a Times piece. Not that I think poorly of the staff writers in Philly, but I know the paper is constantly paring down and I wouldn’t be surprised if their science kept getting shoddier as a result. 

Let’s get right to the meat of the issue: “That would allow thousands of genetic diseases to be detected prenatally. But the ability to know so much about an unborn child is likely to raise serious ethical concerns as well. It could increase abortions for reasons that have little to do with medical issues and more to do with parental preference for traits in children.”

Woah. Hold up. That’s your fourth line? Really? That’s what’s important here? Pollack doesn’t even begin to describe the tech until a few paragraphs later, and it only gets a sentence before he jumps back to describing current technologies in length. But not every article is written for people who want in-depth explanations of scientific method, so let’s ignore that. 

Even so, Pollack’s decision to focus on the fact that this technology “could cause” an increase in abortions for what he thinks are the wrong reasons is an example of a journalist TOTALLY MISSING THE POINT and being a bit of an ass to boot. He mentions Tay-Sachs, but gives no voice to parents who watched their children die in infancy of the painful disease. He quotes Marcy Darnovsky, a representative from an organization that focuses on sex-selective abortion, without explaining why she’s worth quoting on the issue. Let’s just say that I’m not surprised that the Times didn’t link to her website in the online version of the article. She’s a woman with an opinion, and there’s no data to back this up.

Just so it’s clear that this isn’t (all) about my personal offense at the tone taken in this article, which I feel does a disservice to what could be an amazing breakthrough and condescends to parents in the difficult position of screening for genetic abnormalities. This article could have been written about the possible risks of the technology, and written well. When I gasped at that first line about an increase in abortions, I was expecting to turn the page and see some numbers. 

What percentage of amniotic genetic tests result in abortions? How many complications from testing end pregnancies each year? I was unable to find a link to the story, but a couple years ago a genetic clinic was penalized for offering just the kind of “trait selection” services that Pollack seems concerned about, but there was no mention of that situation (highly relevant, I think!) in the article. 

This is not meant to be a coherent letter to the editor.

That’s coming later today when I’ve had enough coffee to be something other than really, really annoyed. 

About Rachel

Rachel Feltman is a 20 year old Simon's Rock alum and a grad student at NYU SHERP. She loves writing about science, and would one day like to be paid to do so. Please.

4 responses »

  1. Wonderful critique, Rachel. Seems like any time someone mentions mapping a genome, all this other talk of selective abortion and trait selection comes up. Lots more to it than that. Get’s kind of frustrating.

  2. Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (June 8th, 2012)

  3. Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (June 8th, 2012)

  4. Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (June 8th, 2012) | My Blog

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