Genetic Screening: Controlling Heredity

With every new advance in prenatal genetic screening, the ability to prevent suffering has also sparked difficult questions about what should count as “a disease” versus “a difference,” and whether we’re in danger of wiping out certain segments of the population. This story was produced in collaboration with PBS, American Experience.

“Genetic Screening: Controlling Heredity” looks at the promise, peril and history of genetic screening. Since the 1970s, as scientists discovered the connections between our genes and disease, it’s become possible for prospective parents to use genetic screening to avoid passing along horrific hereditary conditions like Tay Sachs or Huntington’s disease. But, as our technology advances, it’s also become easier to screen out other conditions, including some that may not be severe, or devastating, or even illnesses.

Screening today can be as simple as a blood or spit test, and is so widespread that many worry it could lead to the search for human perfection, and to the weeding out of those deemed “unfit.” These fears arise, in part, because just 100 years ago, that’s exactly what a powerful movement—the eugenics movement—tried to do.

Our story was produced in collaboration with PBS, American Experience, who recently released The Eugenics Crusade, which tells the story of the unlikely –– and largely unknown –– campaign to breed a “better” American race, tracing the rise of the movement that turned the fledgling science of heredity into a powerful instrument of social control.

For teachers
  • Producer: Jill Rosenbaum
  • Editor: Brian Kamerzel