Protection As Well As Education
At the same time that they provide beneficial genetic counseling to patients and their families, professionals providing such a service must have a full understanding of the dangers of eugenics. The abuse of genetic information has led to many atrocities in the past. In Germany, the Nazis murdered nearly 7 million "genetically defective" people during World War II and forcibly sterilized nearly half a million others, all in the name of "eugenics"—a policy that calls for the systematic elimination of "unfit" members of the population. The United States also has a checkered past with respect to eugenics. In the early twentieth century, the United States passed laws allowing sterilization of the mentally handicapped and limiting the number of "genetically inferior" ethnic groups that were allowed to immigrate.
In order to prevent such abuses from ever occurring again, the genetic counseling profession has followed in the footsteps of other health-care professions by establishing a code of ethics guiding professional behavior. Policies such as nondirectiveness, prevention of genetic discrimination, respect for patients' beliefs, complete disclosure, and informed consent are components of these ethical principles. Nondirectiveness, one of the major tenets of genetic counseling, is defined by the National Society of Genetic Counselors as enabling "clients to make informed independent decisions, free of coercion, by providing or illuminating the necessary facts and clarifying the alternatives and anticipated consequences."
Genetic counseling has become a vital part of medical genetics. With the knowledge gained from the past and the tools to help patients choose their paths, genetic counseling will continue to be invaluable in the rapidly growing field of human genetics.
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