I read Alex Beam’s column in the Boston Globe the other day all about radio talk show host Jan Mickelson’s incredulous rant against diabetics. As quoted in the article, Mickelson told Type 1 diabetic and radio guest James Hirsch (whose son is also diabetic), “I know the desire to reproduce from your own gene pool is almost overwhelming…But what if you know have the shallow end of your own pool? …If you are genetically flawed, just don’t reproduce. That’s just being a bad citizen.”
While Mickelson later admitted he confused Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, his eugenics-based approach to solving health care problems remained both steadfast and confounding.
Obviously there are so many angles and ways to respond to Hirsch’s vitriolic and illogical argument. It is a topic we discuss often in my writing courses that explore constructions of health in contemporary literature. The more we find out about diseases and their genetic components, the more people like Mickelson can use burgeoning science as an ill-formed argument against reproduction. In response to diabetics being labeled as “genetically flawed”, Hirsch countered with the examples of breast cancer patients and those stricken with Alzheimer’s—after all, no one would apply such labels to these patients despite the genetic basis of those debilitating conditions.
If that’s the case, then what about heart disease? Certainly genetics plays a role in cholesterol levels. Or celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder with a strong genetic component? Or extend that line of thought further—what about poor vision, ADHD and other learning disabilities? All these things have genetic links. Where, then, should we demarcate the line that separates the “shallow” end of Mickelson’s pool from the more appropriate deep end? Who decides which variations and mutations are permissible, and which ones banish us to the bottom of the reproductive chain?
I can take this topic out of the news and out of my classroom because it is one that has a stake in my own life. Many of my health problems—including the potentially life-threatening ones—are genetic ones. Though both sides of my family have complicated medical histories, no one on either side has anything close to primary cilia dyskinesia—and yet here I am. Perhaps I am genetically flawed in the eyes of people like Mickelson, but I don’t see it that way.
Telling people with certain diseases not to reproduce misses the mark on so many levels. Labels and categories can never fully encompass all the things that underlie questions of health and wellness, and viewing the genetic code as textual errors to be re-written is shocking in its exclusion.
We’re thinking about having children, and while I have a lot of concerns, I am not worried about passing on my PCD to my children. They may get their grandfather’s high cholesterol or diabetes, their father’s dyslexia, their mother’s celiac disease, or, also like their mother, they may be born with something no one in the family has seen or had before. If they’re lucky, they’ll also inherit their grandfather’s drive and determination, their mother’s memory and resiliency, their father’s compassion, wisdom, and intellect. Whatever combination of genes—of variations, mutations, quirks, and talents—they have we’ll take, with gratitude.
Luckily for all of our sakes, ignorance isn’t something that is inherited. Unfortunately it exists, but only in those people at the “shallow” end.