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Genes and behaviour: getting the message across

7 October 2002
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 178
This week saw the publication of a new and much anticipated report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the ethical issues arising from research into behavioural  genetics. The report, entitled 'Genetics and human behaviour: the ethical context', is a weighty publication, the result of 18 months of fact finding and deliberation. But whilst the report itself was well-considered and serious, the press coverage of its publication left much to be desired.

On BBC News Online, the story about the report's publication was entitled 'Concern over baby gene selection', whilst the Daily Telegraph preferred to summarise it with the headline: 'Call for ban on designer babies chosen for IQ (intelligence quotient)'. These headlines are curious because they are very unrepresentative of the report itself which, whilst it does recommend that embryo selection for behavioural genetic traits be prohibited, makes many other recommendations on many other issues related to genes and behaviour.

It's tempting to put the flavour of the news coverage on the Nuffield report down to journalists' obsession with designer babies, an obsession which sends them off scouring a lengthy report for the one paragraph that mentions embryo selection. But it turns out that the media focus was intentional. The press release issued by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has as its first line: 'Embryos should not be selected for behavioural traits such as intelligence on the basis of genetic information.' Not until much later in the press release does it say that 'there are currently no practical applications of research in the genetics of behaviour within the normal range.'

Given the wording of the press release, it's obviously no surprise that the newspapers led on the designer babies angle. But does this focus really matter? The report says that we ought to discuss the ethics of screening for behavioural traits in embryos, even though it is not currently possible to carry out such screening. Discussing the ethics seems reasonable. But calling for a ban on embryo screening gives it an air of urgency. Members of the public reading the press coverage could be forgiven for assuming that something which needs prohibiting is something which is already a reality.

Another problem with the focus on embryo screening is that it's probably the only thing that people will remember from a report that considers so much else, not least the current state of the science of behavioural genetics. At the press conference, members of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics expressed concern about a skewed public perception of behavioural genetics which overestimates the power and influence of genes. Calling for a ban on screening for genetic variations which are not yet understood may perpetuate rather than dispel this myth.

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