Tom Shakespeare: Genetics and the disabled

From a speech given by the Director of Outreach at Newcastle University to the BA Festival of Science
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The Independent Online

2003 is European Year of Disabled People. It is also the 50th anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA. There is a potential irony here. Genetics, according to many, reveals an approach to the world that is in opposition to the message of disability rights and social inclusion. Many disabled people have reacted with hurt and hostility to the hyperbole of genetics advocates.

We need to hear the voices of disabled people, because they are particularly affected by the implications of genetics. There is the issue of whether we welcome disabled babies in the world, and whether we welcome disabled people's rights to be parents. Old eugenics focused on stopping certain people becoming parents. New genetics gives people knowledge so they can choose to avoid the birth of disabled babies. This raises the issue of choice. I support a woman's right to choose, but the rhetoric of choice often conceals eugenic tendencies. We must support people to continue pregnancy as well as to terminate it.

Disabled people are divided on the issue. On the one hand, we have Christopher Reeve touring Europe to win support for stem cell research. On the other, we have radical disabled people arguing that they do not want to be cured, they are disabled by society, not by their bodies.

Genetics has the potential to be a great servant, but it should never be the master of society. It cannot become the basis on which we value each other. The science of genetics tells us: first, we are all disabled. Every one of us has genetic mutations, potential genetic disease. Second, our similarities are far greater than our differences.

Our differences amount to less than a 10th of one per cent of our genome. Whether you express this shared humanity in terms of our immortal soul, or by saying that there is that of God in every one, or in terms of universal human rights, the message is the same.