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This is a white paper from the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) Ancestry and Ancestry Testing Task Force which follows on the 2008 ASHG Ancestry Testing Summary Statement.

Pedigree.  Credit: Darryl Leja  
Source: National Human Genome Research Institute The Task Force asks provocative questions such as what is ancestry? One concept of ancestry is continental ancestry which offers four or five “parental” populations. This concept may be equated with race, although there has not been a consistent scientific interpretation of race. Another concept is biogeographic ancestry -that is the comparison to contemporary populations of the area from which one’s ancestors came. Lineage or family history is another ‘meaning’ for the term ancestry.

Inferring genetic ancestry for individuals through direct-to-consumer tests is least precise at intermediate levels of ancestry. At the ‘very close’ (i.e., parents or grandparents) or distant (i.e. early hominids) levels it is somewhat more precise. Because intragroup genetic variation is greater than variation between groups, there are limits to the precision of genetic ancestry testing. Currently available reference samples do not adequately represent human genetic diversity. At this point, genetic inference is basically a “statistical exercise.”

The Task Force report goes into detail concerning tools for inferring ancestry. These include haploid markers (from either maternal or paternal lines) and autosomal markers (from both parents) as well as Ancestry Informative Markers (AIMs) and admixture estimation.

Social, legal, and ethical concerns in inferring ancestry include: genetics research that questions ancestral relationships and identity, and privacy and security concerns.

The authors conclude that the human genetics community needs to “develop mechanisms for promoting thoughtful and rigorous use of genetic ancestry estimation in academic research” and that a national roundtable discussion of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing should be held.

Royal, Charmaine D., Novembre, John, Fullerton, Stephanie M., Goldstein, David B., Long, Jeffrey C., Bamshad, Michael J., and Clark, Andrew G. Inferring Genetic Ancestry: Opportunities, Challenges, and Implications. The American Journal of Human Genetics. May 14, 2010. 86(5): 661-673. doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2010.03.011. [Accessed on September 28, 2011]

09/28/2011 - 10:03am

Q: What do you get if you place some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields of technology innovation, risk, and sustainability in the same room for two days? A: One whopping headache!

Not because of the confusion and cacophony, but because of the overwhelming volume of information, ideas and insights that emerge....

09/28/2011 - 9:54am

Kudos to Australia for recognizing that some people might not be well served by a passport system that marks you only as either “M” or “F” and does so on the basis of your birth certificate. But, oh, what have they stepped in, as they’ve tried to step forward?

At first, I thought maybe the news reports I was reading just had it all wrong. I thought that Australia’s revision couldn’t be as messed up as it seemed from what I was reading, say, on But then I went to the Australian government’s own Web site, and found confirmation.

So what are the problems? In a nutshell: (1) confusion over sex and gender; (2) pretending intersex is a simple natural category; (3) imagining that transgender people never have anything but one of two simple genders; (4) letting doctors be the arbiters of social identity; and (5) uh, did they really have to pick “X”?

Let’s take these one at a time.

In its passport system, Australia, like many governments, appears to be using the terms “sex” and “gender” as if they were virtually synonymous. They’re not. “Sex” refers to one’s biology, whereas “gender” refers to one’s sense of self. It’s kind of funny that Australia is simultaneously changing its passport system specifically to recognize transgender people (many of whom feel their genders are at odds with their congenital sex) while also failing to get the difference between sex and gender.

The biggest tip-off of Australia’s confusion over sex and gender comes from the fact that “gender X” (the designated third gender) is limited to people who are intersex, which Australia defines as “being of indeterminate sex.” According to the new rules, transgender people, in contrast to intersex people, must be labeled either “M” or “F.” This approach indicates the Australians want to limit the gender X category to people who have some kind of alleged biological basis for a third gender.

But this is just nutty. The vast majority of people born with atypical sex types, or intersex conditions, see themselves as men or women, and the vast majority are not transgender. That is to say, they accept and live in the genders that they were assigned at birth, like most of us. Meanwhile, most people who are transgender have no discernable congenital sex atypicality. So why keep transgender people out of “gender X” and require intersex of someone to be let in to “X”?

To use a passport analogy, Australia’s approach to sex and gender is like confusing where you’re born with your citizenship. Clearly where you are born is a kind of biological fact that turns out, in the long run, only to match citizenship most of the time. Seems like it’s citizenship (and gender) that should matter to passports.

One weird effect of the new Australian system is to require people who are intersex to decide what matters to them more – their sex (“X” in this scheme) or their gender (“M” or “F” in this scheme, for most people born sex atypical). The new Australian system doesn’t actually recognize the reality of the vast majority of intersex people, who are either X/M (men with intersex) or X/F (women with intersex).

I’ve written more than I ever thought I would need to about how intersex is not a discrete natural category, so I’m not going to say much more about that here, except to note that the Australian revision seems to believe it is a discrete natural category, and one that is diagnosable by doctors. I’d love to hear how small a penis has to be or how big a clitoris has to be before you’re entitled to the “X” option. And I’d love to know whether that differs by nation, region, town, or doctor. I’m guessing the last.

The truth is that there aren't three sex categories in nature – male, female, and intersex. In nature, sex blends in complicated ways from one sex trait to another. So the idea that there is a natural third category also legitimizes the other two categories as if they are natural, when in fact nature doesn't draw these lines. We draw these lines on nature.

Okay, we’ve covered problems #1 (confusion over sex and gender) and #2 (pretending intersex is a simple natural category). The rest are pretty simple:

As to #3 (imagining that transgender people never have anything but one of two simple genders), do I need to say much about this other than that it is a hangover from the old conservative system that insists on two genders? The reality is that there are people who do not have any discernable intersex condition but also do not see themselves as simply men or women. Why are they restricted to M or F? Because this system still longs for a firm biological anchor to gender, I think.

Regarding #4 (letting doctors be the arbiters of social identity), the new Australian rules require a doctor’s note to certify a person as either transgender (or more like re-gendered) or as intersex. But why are we asking doctors to do this? (Why not just let people tell us who they are?) And could I ask, if we must have this doctors’-note system, could we please make everyone who thinks they are male-men and female-women get a doctor’s note proving it, too?

Finally, #5: Did they really have to pick “X”?

"X" has tended to signify unwanted or naughty things in American history, and I'm guessing Australia’s relationship with the letter “X” is not that different. I really don’t think we’re helping anybody by marking people born with sex anomalies as “X” men, grand as we might be imagining their superpowers to be.

Alice Dreger is a professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. This essay originally appeared on her blog for Psychology Today.

09/28/2011 - 9:30am

It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?

His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of violating human rights....

09/27/2011 - 7:20am

"Dying cancer patients should not be given 'futile' drugs" - That is the title of Martin Beckford's article in the Telegraph reporting on this Lancet Oncology Commission report, “Delivering Affordable Cancer Care in High-Income Countries.”


09/26/2011 - 9:02am

Facebook users should keep complaining, complaining bitterly, complaining in every possible forum.

Much of the force of the “stop complaining!” camp is rooted in the claim that, hey, after all, it’s a free service and no one’s forcing you to use it anyway. But contrary to what you might have heard, Facebook isn’t optional, and it isn’t free. Let me explain....

09/26/2011 - 7:30am
Yesterday's Washington Post included a story about the growth of pet euthanasia at home.  "Back in the day, of course, it was common for family animals to die at home, whether from natural causes, a shot from the family rifle or a needle from the bag of a vet who routinely traveled from house to house and farm to farm. But the rise of clinic-based animal care meant that the most common scene of a pet's demise shifted to an office setting."Now it's "shifting back," according to the InHome Pet Euthanasia Directory.  More vets are making end-of-life house calls for those who want more for their pets' last moments than a frightened scrabble on a cold steel exam table.  These vets put animals to sleep in "favorite spots" ranging from front porches to under trees, even on the couches and cushions that might have been forbidden them in life.  Now, if we can only expand hospice to allow more human beings the same option to die where they say (in poll after poll) they want to. 
09/25/2011 - 9:12am

One aspect of our re-ignited American Civil War is getting a lot of air-play. It is so-called “class war.”

That’s the tag-line ordered up by Roger Ailes. The notion: that any talk of returning to 1990s tax rates – way back when the U.S. was healthy. wealthy, vibrantly entrepreneurial and world-competitive, generating millionaires at the fastest pace in human history – is somehow akin to Robespierre chopping heads in the French Revolution’s reign of terror....