Tay-Sachs Disease and Modern Eugenics in Action

Tay-Sachs disease is a hereditary defect which, although rare, causes a child born with the genetic defect to suffer from deteriorating nerve cells, which usually causes death by age four. It is an autosomal recessive condition, requiring both parents to provide a copy of the gene to the child. Not only this, but the specific gene mutation is strongly linked to the Ashkenazi Jewish population. However, in recent years, there has not been a single child born with Tay-Sachs in the Jewish population. There are those in Isreal who claim that Tay-Sachs has been almost eradicated completely, as a result of a rigorous eugenics program intituted by Othrodox Jewish circles. In Isreal, at least, the general public is advised by the state to preform the genetic tests necessary to identify the defect before the pregnancy is carried out, thus preventing a number of children born with Tay-Sachs. This, combined with the fact that through education about the disease and it’s prevalence in the Ashekenazi Jewish bloodline, many couples choose to be tested before having children as well.

In Orthodox Jewish circles, where terminating the birth would be undesirable, a mate selection program has been in place. The organization Dor Yeshorim or Committee for Prevention of Genetic Diseases offers and encourages genetic screening for the Jewish community across the world. Using an anonymous system of PIN numbers, they test for multiple autosomal recessive disorders, not only Tay-Sachs. When two potential partners wish to have a child or get married, they enter their PIN numbers and the system will inform them if they both carry a recessive gene, thus discouraging the match.

While this may indicate and more extreme implementation of eugenics today, it is difficult to deny that their program has not yielded positive results. Through modern science and an anonymous testing process, Dor Yeshorim has been successful in preventing further births with such debilitating diseases such as Tay-Sachs, albiet only in the Jewish community which chooses to participate. However, it does bring up yet more ethical questions, such as the desirability of arranged marriages based on genetic factors. Not only this, but this could be interpreted as a specific and unique scenario- the genetic mutation responsible for Tay-Sachs is distinctly more prevalent in a certain population, not to mention a population that is more open to the concept of arranging marriages based on fitness; if such a program could be implemented on a larger scale with respect to other diseases is yet to be known.

Here are some links about Dor Yoreshim, their program, and the Jewish initiative to wipe out Tay-Sachs:

http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/eugenics-sacred-and-profane

http://www.galtoninstitute.org.uk/Newsletters/GINL9912/jewish.htm

http://righteousrasha.blogspot.com/2011/07/jewish-eugenics.html

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