The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) apologized today for the participation of some of its early leaders in the eugenics movement, as well as the group’s failure to acknowledge and oppose other past harms and injustices in the field of genetics.
The apology stems from a yearlong ASHG project that resulted in a 27-page report documenting instances of injustices. They range from ASHG leaders who supported forced sterilization to the organization’s silence when genetics was used to justify discrimination against Black people. The findings are “painful” but need to be shared widely, says Brendan Lee, a pediatrician and a geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine and president of ASHG, which has some 8000 members. “How do you build trust if you don’t express remorse and decry what has really gone on inappropriately in the past?”
“It’s been a long time coming,” adds Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania and member of an expert panel that helped guide the report. “And much needed.”
Like many groups and institutions, ASHG was galvanized to expand on its diversity and inclusion efforts by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a Minnesota police officer in 2020, and the subsequent racial reckoning in the United States. ASHG hired an outside contractor to investigate its 75-year history. The resulting report—also informed by Tishkoff and 12 other human geneticists, historians, clinician-scientists, social scientists, and equity scholars—found that as many as nine ASHG presidents served on the board of directors or presidents of the American Eugenics Society since its founding in 1926 until 1972. And several past presidents supported voluntary and compulsory eugenic sterilizations at some point in their careers.
And although ASHG apparently did not directly aid or promote the eugenics movement, the panel found no evidence that it ever took a strong stance against membership or researchers who promoted eugenic ideals. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that ASHG published statements opposing eugenics theories.
“I didn’t realize the extent to which a number of the past presidents and people who have been very well-respected in terms of their contributions to human genetics … believed in this eugenic ideology,” Tishkoff says.
ASHG also remained silent when genetics was misused to justify social harms in the 1960s and ’70s. For example, some scientists (not geneticists) pushed the idea that Black people were intellectually inferior because of their genetics or allowed misunderstanding of the genetic nature of sickle cell disease to generate discrimination against Black people, according to the report.
The report also identified instances when ASHG failed to respond in a timely fashion to projects that were unethical or didn’t protect Indigenous peoples’ genetic information. It specifically cites two efforts in the 1990s: the Human Genome Diversity Project, an ambitious attempt to study the genes of more than 50 populations worldwide, and Arizona State University’s Diabetes Project, which used the genetic information of Havasupai tribe members in research projects without their consent.
The investigation found some individuals within ASHG did speak out against these injustices, and urged the organization to take a stance in several instances. It also mentions how the genetics field and ASHG have more recently denounced similar injustices and become more inclusive. The report is published today on ASHG’s website and in The American Journal of Human Genetics.
Vence Bonham, a social scientist and acting deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, applauded the report and the apology from ASHG’s leadership. “They really try to articulate some of the challenges and the issues that the field has had,” he says. “This is part of their responsibility to continue to take efforts to make the field more diverse to address these issues so that they’re not repeated.”
Erik Peterson, a historian of science at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, calls the report “a great first step” toward acknowledging past injustices, but he says ASHG needs to do more, such as push for including this history in all undergraduate and graduate genetics programs in the country.
Tishkoff agrees. “I wish I had had something like this to read” in graduate school, she says. “We’re not taught [about] it.”
One immediate action ASHG plans to take is to suspend naming its awards after past scientists, given the problematic history of several of them. The society’s most prestigious award, for example, is named after William Allen, a prominent geneticist who promoted sterilization of individuals with “undesirable traits,” according to the report. Beyond that, ASHG says it will continue to promote diversity in the genetics field, which a society survey found last year is 67% white.
ASHG joins other societies and organizations that have recently acknowledged their role in promoting social injustices and racism. AAAS (which publishes Science) acknowledged in 2021 that the journal “played a shameful and notable role” in the scientific acceptance of eugenics in the United States. Other institutions, such as the Carnegie Institution for Science and University College London, have also apologized for their involvement in eugenics. And the American Psychological Association has apologized for promoting, perpetrating, and failing to challenge racism.
“You have to acknowledge, address, and understand this history in order to progress and change things and to do better in the future,” Tishkoff says.
Rodrigo Pérez Ortega is a science journalist covering life sciences, medicine, health, and academia.
Don’t yet have access? Subscribe to News from Science for full access to breaking news and analysis on research and science policy.
Help News from Science publish trustworthy, high-impact stories about research and the people who shape it. Please make a tax-deductible gift today.
If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we cannot wait for a crisis to respond. Science and AAAS are working tirelessly to provide credible, evidence-based information on the latest scientific research and policy, with extensive free coverage of the pandemic. Your tax-deductible contribution plays a critical role in sustaining this effort.
© 2023 American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved. AAAS is a partner of HINARI, AGORA, OARE, CHORUS, CLOCKSS, CrossRef and COUNTER.