Human Rights for Tomorrow

The Persistence of Discrimination

March against discriminations . . . by youkeo, with Creative Commons licenceDiscrimination isn’t always obvious, and it’s often explained away as something else. Racial discrimination becomes a matter of ‘unsuitability’, social discrimination becomes a lack of proper ‘skills’, discrimination against people with disabilities becomes an attempt to redefine what’s ‘normal’. There are even situations in which the very possibility of discrimination is rejected because ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen here’. That’s hardly a logical position, but there’s no real defence against it.

What can you say to someone whose mindset fails to accept the presence of discrimination at all? To give an example mentioned here previously, how do we react to the Hong Kong government’s refusal to even address, in law, acts of racial discrimination outside the workplace? Long-standing claims by the Chief Executive that his government’s policies are “people-based” clearly depend on what sort of person you are – your skin colour, your wealth, whether or not you’re prepared to be critical.

But Hong Kong is just a dot on the map when it comes to the many forms of discrimination, both covert and overt, that deny human rights around the globe. A world that has nourished discrimination based on race, class, sex, perceived ability and any other deviation from a shifting sense of ‘normality’ will always throw up barriers to change, to the natural right to be treated as a fellow human, without fear or favour. Still, even as the struggle for human rights continues there is one area in which discrimination could well be stamped on before it properly takes hold – genetics.

One in the Eye for Eugenics

Even before the mapping of the human genome in 2003 there was a great deal of concern that mistaken notions of human perfectibility would lead to new forms of genetic discrimination. Despite a great deal of popular anxiety that everyone should have the right to be ‘normal’, each human has on average 8 to 10 mutant genes.

None of us are normal.

Untitled, by Simon Pais-Thomas, with Creative Commons licenceThat’s why recent news from the US that Congress is close to passing a bill to block genetic discrimination is very welcome. Discrimination against federal employees based on genetic information however acquired has been illegal in the US since the issuance of Executive Order 13145 in early 2000. But, according to Nature, the new bill will extend that protection across the country, banning employers from using genetic information in “hiring, firing, promotion and compensation decisions, and from collecting genetic information from employees”. Other targets of the bill are insurance companies that seek to deny or over-charge for coverage based on information about the potential for genetic diseases.

None of this should detract from the value of genetic research, and how it could bring about a future with less disease. But the bill could be equally important in acting as a prototype for further action against resurgent eugenicists who would like to see humanity’s social problems solved by genetic means – by breeding out presumed imperfections, to be blunt.

David King has described eugenics as a “managerial tendency” to clean up the mess left behind by reproduction. And as Kenneth and Bettylee Garver argued at the outset of the Human Genome Project, eugenics rests on the belief that genes, rather than behaviour, determine a person’s future. In a scientific sense that belief is bunkum – a person’s genotype, or their inherited traits, is related to but distinct from their phenotype, or observed characteristics.

And Now for the Future

The distinction between inheritance and physical state, including development and behaviour, can also be made of a person’s race, class, sexuality or any other trait that can be perceived to be somehow ‘wrong’. None of us are prisoners of birth, but many are seen to be so. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act may well turn out to be flawed in some way – Gregor Wolbring has already mentioned possible shortcomings in how any such legislation could help people who suffer from obvious genetic disabilities. But, even so, what the bill will do is point to the completely arbitrary nature of discrimination.

...Lying, by - Javier - with Creative Commons licenceIn the future, as in the past, human rights will be retracted or ignored based on decisions completely absent of logic or evidence. They may be justified, but they will have no basis in fact. The challenge will be to combat discrimination in all of its forms based not on what’s ‘right’, but on what can be proven to be false. In most cases, given that we live in governed societies, that will mean showing something to be illegal rather than immoral.

Such are the limits of this imperfect and often puzzling world. We should only remember that while perfection is impossible, action to prevent discrimination is not.

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