`Bad genes' abortion call

Tom Wilkie reports on a controversial conference on genetics and criminality
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The Independent Online
Abortion should be considered when antenatal testing indicates a child is likely to be born with genes predisposing it to aggressive or antisocial behaviour, it was suggested yesterday.

At a London press conference before a controversial private conference on genetics and criminality, Dr Gregory Carey, an American behavioural geneticist, cited a study of one Dutch family where apparently inherited aggression had been linked to a genetic defect. Dr Carey, of the Institute of Behavioural Genetics at the University of Colorado, said "the technology may be there" to carry out antenatal diagnosis, although a decision to abort would have to be up to the family.

His view was endorsed by Dr David Goldman from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the US National Institutes of Health. "The families should be given the information and should be allowed to decide privately how to use it."

The conference has been attacked in a letter signed by 15 scientists, including the Provost of King's College, Cambridge, Professor Patrick Bateson, who is an international authority on animal behaviour. The programme of the private meeting, and of an open session on Friday, is "alarming" the letter says, because it "does not include speakers with a viewpoint critical of genetic determinism. As it stands, the programme can only give the impression that genetic causes of crime are more important than social causes."

The conference chairman, Sir Michael Rutter, of the Centre for Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry in London, said that research into the genetics of criminality could lead to a better "understanding of how risk factors operate, which is important for intervention and prevention".

The risk factors need not represent abnormalities, he continued yesterday, but could stem from genetic variation within the normal range.

Dr Carey said "the main questions... are how individual differences in DNA ultimately translate into individual differences in aggression, theft, robbery and violence". But he emphasised: "Humans are not insects with strong genetic programming. Identical twins do not behave identically, they behave similarly."

US courts may accept genes as pleas in mitigation within five years or so, according to Dr Deborah Denno, an associate professor at the Fordham School of Law in New York.

Some scientists have criticised attempts to link genes and criminality. The director of the Centre for Forensic Science at Durham University, Dr Zakaria Erzinclioglu, called it "very disturbing, simple minded and mischievous".