Tag Archives: genetics

When to (Not) Have Kids

An employee of Planned Parenthood holds a sign about birth control to be displayed on New York City buses, 1967. (H. William Tetlow/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

For a variety of reasons, I don’t have kids. As a woman of a certain age, I’ve been conditioned to believe I must qualify that statement by assuring you it’s not that I’m some kid hater, or that I don’t think babies are cute. They are! (Okay, I also find them to be kind of disgusting.) But among my many reasons for not procreating is that kids grow up to be people, and life for most people on this overcrowded, overheated planet is hard, and getting harder.

Even before Donald Trump took office, I had often wondered: with terrorism, war, and genocide, with climate change rendering Earth increasingly less habitable, how do people feel optimistic enough about the future to bring new people into the world? Since the presidential election, the prospects for humanity seem only more dire. I’m hardly alone in this thinking; I can’t count how many times over the past year I’ve huddled among other non-breeders, wondering along with them in hushed tones, How on earth do people still want to have kids? I was surprised, at this bleak moment in American history, that I hadn’t seen any recent writing on the topic. Was it still too taboo to discuss not making babies, from any angle? Then this past week a few pieces caught my eye.

The one that spoke most directly to my doubts about perpetuating the human race, and its suffering, was “The Case for Not Being Born,” by Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker. Rothman interviews anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar, author of 2006’s Better Never to Have Been: the Harm of Coming Into Existence, and more recently, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. Rothman notes that Benatar makes no bones about his pessimism as it relates to humanity.

People, in short, say that life is good. Benatar believes that they are mistaken. “The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling,” he writes, in “The Human Predicament.” He provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even “those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.” Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. “People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly. They have high hopes for their children and these are often thwarted when, for example, the children prove to be a disappointment in some way or other. When those close to us suffer, we suffer at the sight of it. When they die, we are bereft.”

While this isn’t how I always look at life, I believe Benatar makes some good points. (Not to mention I’ve endured three of the above mentioned hot flashes while writing this, and one’s optimism does tend to dip in those estrogen-depleted moments.)

Rothman’s piece reminded me of an essay we published here on Longreads a couple of years ago,  “The Answer is Never,” by Sabine Heinlein. Like me, Heinlein often finds herself having to defend her preference for choosing to be childless: “One of the many differences between my husband and me is that he has never been forced to justify why he doesn’t want to have children. I, on the other hand, had to prepare my reasons from an early age.” She keeps a laundry list of reasons handy:

Over the years I tried out various, indisputable explanations: The world is bursting at the seams and there is little hope for the environment. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth has lost half of its fauna in the last 40 years alone. The atmosphere is heating up due to greenhouse gases, and we are running out of resources at an alarming speed. Considering these facts, you don’t need an excuse not to have children, you need an excuse to have children! When I mention these statistics to people, they just nod. It’s as if their urge to procreate overrides their knowledge.

Is there any knowledge forbidding enough that it could potentially override such a primordial urge? In a devastating essay at New York magazine, “Every Parent Wants to Protect Their Child. I Never Got the Chance,” Jen Gann attests that there is. Gann writes about raising a son who suffers from cystic fibrosis, an incurable disease that will likely lead to his early death. The midwife practice neglected to warn her that she and her husband were carriers, and Gann writes that she would have chosen to terminate the pregnancy if they had.

The summer after Dudley was born, my sister-in-law came to visit; we were talking in the kitchen while he slept in the other room. “But,” she said, trying to figure out what it would mean to sue over a disease that can’t be prevented or fixed, “if you had known — ” I interrupted her, wanting to rush ahead but promptly bursting into tears when I said it: “There would be no Dudley.” I remember the look that crossed her face, how she nodded slowly and said, twice, “That’s a lot.”

What does it mean to fight for someone when what you’re fighting for is a missed chance at that person’s not existing?

The more I discuss the abortion I didn’t have, the easier that part gets to say aloud: I would have ended the pregnancy. I would have terminated. I would have had an abortion. That’s firmly in the past, and it is how I would have rearranged my actions, given all the information. It’s moving a piece of furniture from one place to another before anything can go wrong, the way we got rid of our wobbly side tables once Dudley learned to walk.

Finally, an essay that took me by surprise was “To Give a Name to It,” by Navneet Alang, at Hazlitt. Alang writes about a name that lingers in his mind: Tasneen, a name he had come up with for a child when he was in a relationship years ago, before the relationship ended, childlessly. It reminded me of the names I long ago came up with for children I might have had — Max and Chloe, after my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother — during my first marriage, long before I learned I couldn’t have kids. This was actually good news, information that allowed me, finally, to feel permitted to override my conditioning and recognize my lack of desire for children, which was a tremendous relief.

Reading Alang’s essay, I realized that although I never brought those two people into the world, I had conceived of them in my mind. And somehow, in some small way, they still live there — two amorphous representatives of a thing called possibility.

A collection of baby names is like a taxonomy of hope, a kind of catechism for future lives scattered over the horizon. Yes, those lists are about the dream of a child to come, but for so many they are about repairing some wound, retrieving what has been lost to the years. All the same, there were certain conversations I could have with friends or the love of my life, and certain ones with family, and somehow they never quite met in the same way, or arrived at the same point. There is a difference between the impulse to name a child after a flapper from the Twenties, or search however futilely for some moniker that will repair historical trauma. Journeys were taken — across newly developed borders, off West in search of a better life, or to a new city for the next phase of a career — and some things have been rent that now cannot quite be stitched back together. One can only ever point one’s gaze toward the future, and project into that unfinished space a hope — that some future child will come and weave in words the thing that will, finally, suture the wound shut. One is forever left with ghosts: a yearning for a mythical wholeness that has slipped irretrievably behind the veil of history.

Yes, I know those ghosts, but not the yearning. I suppose I’m fortunate to not be bothered by either their absence in the physical realm, nor their vague presence somewhere deep in the recesses of my consciousness. Fortunate to no longer care what my lack of yearning might make people think of me.

The Joys and Sorrows of Watching My Own Birth

JoKMedia / Getty

Shelby Vittek | Longreads | December 2017 | 13 minutes (3,315 words)

 

It’s a hot August night in 1991 at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and the delivery room is filled with bright lights. A film crew is documenting a woman giving birth. After almost 12 hours of active labor, it’s time for her to really push.

A few anxious rounds of counting to 10 and many deep breaths later, the doctor says, “Ooooh there you go, lots of hair.”

“That’s it, the baby’s coming!” the red-haired nurse says with excitement.

That’s when I enter the picture, with a head full of red hair of my own.

* * *

I know this scene well. It’s my own birth. Not many people can say they’ve watched their own delivery, but I can.

In fact, I’ve watched myself be born more times than I should probably ever admit to. I’m doing it again tonight for the ninth time this week, sitting on the floor in my studio apartment with my eyes fixated on the television. The sight of my fiery red hair making its debut will never fail to amaze me.

The video of my birth in no way resembles your typical home video. It’s more like a documentary, with my parents and family, and then finally me, as its subjects. Every single reaction of theirs is recorded in the truest manner, and edited as well as early ’90s technology could allow. That’s because it was not shot by a proud father-to-be, but instead a professional film crew. I was paid $300 to be born (the check went directly into my first college fund, I’ve been told), and the footage was used to make an educational video for other expecting parents to watch during Lamaze birthing classes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people have watched me be born, too.

Read more…

What Makes a Disability Undesirable?

(Ton Koene / VWPics via AP Images)

Who gets to decide if a disability is bad? This is one of the fundamental questions raised by a recent STAT feature on the genetic testing of embryos, which also looks at how that decision is reached. Andrew Joseph follows two women who knowingly pursue a pregnancy with an embryo that has a mutation that would put their child at a higher risk for certain cancers. It was the only viable embryo the couple had, so if they wanted a baby they didn’t have much of a choice.

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Unlocking the Genetic Code of Poverty

an abandoned warehouse in appalachia
An abandoned warehouse in Appalachia. Photo by My Mom Is Wolves via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Christian H. Cooper made his way from Appalachia to Wall Street, and from poverty to wealth. But is it because he worked harder than the family and friends still struggling in East Tennessee, or was it luck? In Nautilus, he digs into the emerging science of epigenetics to look at the way poverty actually changes our genetic expression, and therefore our physiology. If poverty has treatable physical aspects, what does that mean for economic policy, social policy, and politics? What does it mean for the American ideal of meritocracy?

Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease.

That word—disease—carries a stigma with it. By using it here, I don’t mean that the poor are (that I am) inferior or compromised. I mean that the poor are afflicted, and told by the rest of the world that their condition is a necessary, temporary, and even positive part of modern capitalism. We tell the poor that they have the chance to escape if they just work hard enough; that we are all equally invested in a system that doles out rewards and punishments in equal measure. We point at the rare rags-to-riches stories like my own, which seem to play into the standard meritocracy template.

But merit has little to do with how I got out.

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Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Woolly Mammoths Roam

Image by Flying Puffin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ross Andersen’s Atlantic profile of Nikita Zimov and his quest to re-create a Pleistocene ecosystem that will slow the thaw of Arctic permafrost, ultimately slowing global warming — it’s like Jurassic Park, but with a basis in science and no man-eating dinosaurs. Impressive and captivating, it’s a piece worth reading, not least for a fascinating explanation of how grasses went from being slimy ocean plants to covering huge swaths of the planet.

For the vast majority of the Earth’s 4.5 billion spins around the sun, its exposed, rocky surfaces lay barren. Plants changed that. Born in the seas like us, they knocked against the planet’s shores for eons. They army-crawled onto the continents, anchored themselves down, and began testing new body plans, performing, in the process, a series of vast experiments on the Earth’s surface. They pushed whole forests of woody stems into the sky to stretch their light-drinking leaves closer to the sun. They learned how to lure pollinators by unfurling perfumed blooms in every color of the rainbow. And nearly 70 million years ago, they began testing a new form that crept out from the shadowy edges of the forest and began spreading a green carpet of solar panel across the Earth.

For tens of millions of years, grasses waged a global land war against forests. According to some scientists, they succeeded by making themselves easy to eat. Unlike other plants, many grasses don’t expend energy on poisons, or thorns, or other herbivore-deterring technologies. By allowing themselves to be eaten, they partner with their own grazers to enhance their ecosystem’s nutrient flows.

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‘When Neanderthals Disappeared From Here, We Became the Sole Inheritors of Our Continent’

For Mosaic Science, Gaia Vince travels to the small British territory of Gibraltar—currently home to an incredibly diverse human population and a place that has been called home to people of all types over the millennia—and analyzes the genetics of ancient humans:

I pause, perched on a rock inside the entrance, in order to consider this—people not so different from myself once sat here, facing the Mediterranean and Africa beyond. Before I arrived in Gibraltar, I used a commercial genome-testing service to analyse my ancestry. From the vial of saliva I sent them, they determined that 1 per cent of my DNA is Neanderthal. I don’t know what health advantages or risks these genes have given me—testing companies are no longer allowed to provide this level of detail—but it is an extraordinary experience to be so close to the intelligent, resourceful people who bequeathed me some of their genes. Sitting in this ancient home, knowing none of them survived to today, is a poignant reminder of how vulnerable we are—it could so easily have been a Neanderthal woman sitting here wondering about her extinct human cousins.

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Science, Chance, and Emotion with Real Cosima

Clone dance party. Photo via BBC America

Maud Newton | Longreads | June 2015 | 24 minutes (5,889 words)

 

BBC America’s Orphan Black seems so immediate, so plausible, so unfuturistic, that Cosima Herter, the show’s science consultant, is used to being asked whether human reproductive cloning could be happening in a lab somewhere right now. If so, we wouldn’t know, she says. It’s illegal in so many countries, no one would want to talk about it. But one thing is clear, she told me, when we met to talk about her work on the show: in our era of synthetic biology — of Craig Venter’s biological printer and George Church’s standardized biological parts, of three-parent babies and of treatment for cancer that involves reengineered viruses— genetics as we have conceived of it is already dead. We don’t have the language for what is emerging. Read more…

Looking at Five Generations of a Single Dutch Family to Understand the Genetics of Violence

Photo by Pixabay

A short piece published in BBC Magazine explored the science of whether murderers are born or made. A British neurocriminologist named Adrian Raine has made a career out of studying the brains of violent criminals. Raine was the first person to conduct a brain imaging study on murderers, and has since scanned the brains of numerous homicidal individuals, looking for similarities. Raine’s brain scanning studies found two similarities in the brains of nearly all his participants: 1) reduced activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which means less emotional impulse control, and 2) over activation of the part of the brain that controls our emotions, called the amygdala. According to the BBC, Raine’s study suggests that ” that murderers have brains that make them more prone to rage and anger, while at the same time making them less able to control themselves.” Childhood abuse could be a factor because of the damage it can cause to the brain, particularly to the pre-frontal cortex. But, as the BBC put it, “only a small proportion of those who have a terrible childhood grow up to become murderers,” which brings us to the next possibility: genetics. Are there genetic factors that predispose us to crime?

A breakthrough came in 1993 with a family in the Netherlands where all the men had a history of violence. Fifteen years of painstaking research revealed that they all lacked the same gene.

This gene produces an enzyme called MAOA, which regulates the levels of neurotransmitters involved in impulse control. It turns out that if you lack the MAOA gene or have the low-activity variant you are predisposed to violence. This variant became known as the warrior gene.

About 30% of men have this so-called warrior gene, but whether the gene is triggered or not depends crucially on what happens to you in childhood.

The research in question was conducted by Han Brunner, a Dutch geneticist working out of a teaching hospital in the Netherlands’ oldest city. Brunner’s research was first published in Science in October 1993, and that same month Sarah Richardson wrote about it for Discover magazine in an article entitled “Violence in the Blood.” Richardson’s piece is fascinating, especially in its explanation of how the geneticists used different clues to determine the origin of the aggressive behavior. This is how it begins:

One day in 1978 a woman walked into University Hospital in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, with a problem: the men in her family. Many of them–including several of her brothers and a son–seemed to have some sort of mental debility. Gradually, as the clinical geneticists who counseled the woman got to know her and her family, the details of the strange behavior of the woman’s male kin emerged. One had tried to rape his sister; another had tried to run his boss down with a car; a third had forced his sisters to undress at knife point. Furthermore, the violent streak had a long history. In 1962 the woman’s granduncle had prepared a family tree that identified nine other males with the same disorder, tracing it as far back as 1870. The granduncle, who was not violent himself–he worked in an institution for the learning disabled–had apparently come to suspect that something was terribly wrong with his family.

Three decades later, and 15 years after the woman’s first office visit, geneticist Han Brunner and his colleagues at the Nijmegen hospital think they’ve figured out what that something is. Some of the men in the woman’s family, they say, suffer from a genetic defect on the X chromosome- -a defect that cripples an enzyme that may help regulate aggressive behavior. If Brunner and his colleagues are right, it would be the first time a specific gene has been linked to aggression. That means their finding cannot fail to be controversial.

See the stories:

1. “Are Murderers Born or Made?” (BBC Magazine)

2. “Violence in the Blood.” (Sarah Richardson, Discover)