Press Release 1 August 2002

Human Genetics Alert response to findings on genetics and crime

Human Genetics Alert (1) responded to the news that a gene may influence abused children's risk of becoming antisocial (2) by urging caution about the over-enthusiastic application of the finding.
Dr David King, HGA's Coordinator, said: "This research can easily play into the tendency to fix social problems by medicalising them.  And in doing so it may actually make these young people more likely to commit crime, not less so.
"Quite apart from the side-effects of the drugs they are likely to be prescribed, the over-prescription of Ritalin for 'Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder' shows how society tends to deal with difficult children.  It is naive to think that we can just target those at increased risk.  If you take an abused child, who has so far done nothing wrong, and drag them into the mental health system, you are likely to destabilise them by reinforcing the very messages that they have received from their abuse: that they are bad and dangerous.  Such interventions also risk giving the child a bad reputation, leading to isolation and bad treatment by peers and the school system, which will precipitate exactly the kind of behaviour the doctors are trying to avoid.  Will these children become 'the usual suspects' that get picked up by the police after every instance of juvenile crime?  Later on, employers and insurers may discriminate against them, increasing the chances that they will be involved in crime. 
"I am also very concerned about how the media tend to report such research.  Typical headlines like 'Crime gene discovered' only reinforce the simplistic genetic determinism which is now commonplace in society.  The history of eugenics shows how dangerous the combination of genetic determinism and authoritarian policies that blame individuals can be.  We need the government to fund a public education programme to combat the growing genetic determinist trend. 
"While it is possible that some research in behavioural genetics may bring benefits, we need a democratic debate about just why we are funding this research and where it is leading us."   
Notes for editors 
1. Human Genetics Alert is an independent watchdog group, funded by a leading British charity.
2. Research led by Terrie Moffitt of the University of Madison Wisconsin and the Institute of Psychiatry in London, to be published in Science on August 2nd, suggests that a variation in the MAO A gene may influence whether children who have suffered trauma go on to show antisocial behaviour later in their lives.
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