Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Sociology

Departmental News Archive

  • A visual ethnography journal appears

    Sociology now has a peer-review process for non-fiction film. By John Grady

    By John Grady

    Back in the day (fifteen years ago), I was a lonely voice fighting for social scientists to recognize non-fiction film as real scholarship. Finally, in 2012, I was able to convince the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) to endorse a proposal to create a peer review process for certifying sociological films. Whew! But that was just a start and I still faced the challenge of actually making it happen. Fortunately -- and completely independently -- Greg Scott from DePaul University in Chicago took a different approach to this particular problem of creating a “more visual” sociology. He just went out and did it! And so on September 15th issue of the online Journal of Visual Ethnography (JVE), which he edits, will be launched and available to teachers, students and the general public for free.

    In a letter to the JVE’s board of directors, which includes yours truly, Greg brings us up to date about the process:

    “Just to let you know: For the first issue we had 21 complete submissions. Each of them underwent rigorous peer review by a panel of 3-4 social scientists (at least two of whom also make films). The reviews were comprised of a traditional narrative critique (of the sort written for print journal articles) as well as in-film frame-specific annotations through our dedicated secure platform on ReviewStudio. Having read all of the reviews for all of the submissions, I feel confident saying that overall these reviews were more carefully done than any I've seen, written, or received for print articles that I've reviewed or submitted myself. I'm very happy with the quality (and timeliness) of the reviewers' work.

    “Here's the breakdown of peer review outcomes: Of the 21 submissions, we will be publishing five in this first issue. Twelve of the submissions received the designation of "Revise and Resubmit." The remaining four were rejected.“We're super excited about this first issue in which we'll be publishing five really terrific ethnografilms, including the first film ever to be considered a doctoral work of "filmic sociology" in France. These are exciting times!”

    You can subscribe to the Journal at: http://www.videoethno.com/jveSubscription.html

    The next Call for Submissions will be opened on September 15 for the second issue of JVE to be published on March 15, 2015. Guidelines for submissions are available at http://www.videoethno.com/authGuidelines.html

  • Cover of book Investigating Social Problems

    Prof. Trevino’s groundbreaking new text thoroughly examines all aspects of social problems.

    Image of book cover Professor A. Javier Treviño, working with a panel of experts, has published a groundbreaking new text, Investigating Social Problems, which thoroughly examines all aspects of social problems, providing a contemporary and authoritative introduction to the field. Each chapter is written by a specialist on that particular topic. The text is framed around three major themes: intersectionality (the interplay of race, ethnicity, class, and gender), the global scope of many problems, and how researchers take an evidence-based approach to studying problems. It is also infused with balanced and contemporary coverage of theory.

    Publisher's display at conferenceDuring the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco, August 2014, an exclusive cocktail event celebrating the publication of Investigating Social Problems was sponsored by SAGE Publications. The event was held in the Vista Lounge of the San Francisco Hilton. The book was also featured at the ASA book exhibit.

  • Photo of man in suit and tie looking at a cat, held affectionately on his shoulder, standing near foliage. Photographing Cats

    What do photographs of cats have to do with the history of civilization? A visual sociologist reveals the connection. by John Grady

    Have you ever wondered why in the world people starting letting cats into the house instead of keeping them outside where they belong? Well this is the book for you.

    John Grady has written the Forward to Arnold Arluke and Lauren Rolfe's The Photographed Cat: Picturing Human-Feline Ties, 1890-1940, published by Syracuse University PressThe book is based on an in-depth study of "real picture postcards" that document many varied aspects of life in thousands of American communities at the beginning of the last century. Arluke -- a sociologist at Northeastern University -- is an eminent student of the sociology of human-animal relations. He and Lauren Rolfe have used hundreds of forgotten images to tell the story of how people let cats into their homes and families and were transformed by the relationships that they built with their animals, who gave up many freedoms by becoming pets.

    Cover of The Photographed Cat: Picturing Human-Feline Ties, 1890-1940

    Cover of The Photographed Cat: Picturing Human-Feline Ties, 1890-1940

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  • Lies, Damn Lies and Obamacare

    If Obamacare doesn’t seem to be working it’s because “the vandals took the handles”. In this case the villains are the Koch brothers by Sam Hammond ’15

    by Sam Hammond ‘15

    Misconceptions have plagued The Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”, since the law was first debated in Congress. Remember the pundits and politicians who proclaimed that the government was setting up “death panels” to euthanize every grandma in America who had caught a cold. Obamacare is now the law of the land and, while the act may not be popular, the public has realized that the government will not be killing anyone anytime soon. Still too many people remain misinformed about the specific policies of Obamacare and how it will affect their lives. Of course it is not unusual for Americans to be uninformed about complex bills and laws. However, the misconceptions about Obamacare are distinctly different from other political confusions. Obamacare has been the center of a campaign of disinformation, and specifically several widely run TV ads that have sought to defame and criticize the policy. More importantly, these ads deliberately distort who benefits from Obamacare.

    Several months ago Julia Boonstra made the news for exceptionally unfortunate circumstances. She had recently received the devastating diagnosis that she had leukemia and only had an estimated 20% chance of surviving. Julie began fighting the disease and was comforted by having a good doctor and health insurance plan. Her situation went from bad to worse, however, when she received a letter from her insurance provider saying that her plan would be cancelled because of new regulations put in place by Obamacare. As a result, Boonstra was left with no way to pay for her treatment since the out-of-pocket cost for the one drug that could have cured her illness was astronomically high. In this case, it could be claimed that Obamacare literally was killing her.

    The organization Americans for Prosperity quickly circulated the news of Boonstra’s circumstances by featuring her story in a prominent television ad that criticized her representative, Michigan’s Gary Peters, for supporting Obamacare. It’s easy to see why people would be so drawn to Boonstra’s story. It is hard to imagine a more damaging account of how Obamacare could hurt average American citizens in need. There is, however, a big problem with the ad. It’s simply not true.

    First of all, Boonstra is a real person who does in fact suffer from Leukemia and deserves a great deal of sympathy and respect for battling it. Beyond Boonstra’s name and circumstances – according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column – the advertising spot is littered with errors. As it turns out, Boonstra was actually offered a very similar plan by her old insurance company that would have allowed her to see her old doctor (Kessler). True, she would have to pay more out of pocket up front, but once she reaches the limits of the deductible, the cost of the treatment would be offset by the lower premiums she would have to pay. Further investigation revealed that under Obamacare Boonstra would actually save an estimated $1200 a year

    Americans For Prosperity (AFP) has been one of the most active and organized voices of opposition to Obamacare. AFP is a conservative advocacy group that supports economic freedoms and is largely funded by the Koch brothers, who are oil billionaires with a history of using their wealth to further their political agenda. In the past few months the Koch brothers have spent $30 million to underwrite ads -- including Boonstra’s story -- in battleground states where democratic congressmen are facing challenges for re-election With so many people uncertain about the effect that Obamacare will have on their healthcare, these ads pose a grave threat to the popularity – and smooth implementation -- of the new law. People who were confused or ambivalent about the reform are now being bombarded with images of honest Americans proclaiming that Obamacare is devastating their lives and health. This has the unfortunate side effect of increasing opposition to the bill even among the low-income and middle-class families who it primarily benefits. It is a truism today to lament that politics is broken in America. Well, if “the pump don’t work,” to quote Bob Dylan, it’s probably “cuz’ the vandals took the handles.” the sentiment certainly covers the Koch brothers and their antics.

  • So What's the Big Deal with Cuba?

    Why can Cuba provide health care coverage to its people, while Peru and the United States can’t? It’s a matter of political will. By Melanie Collins ’16

    By Melanie Collins ‘16

    Melanie Collins '16

    Melanie Collins '16

    It was a beautiful afternoon day and I awoke in a dimly lit, smelly Peruvian clinic. There were large horse flies buzzing around my head and a dusty blanket keeping me warm. The nurses wore dirty jeans and prodded me with needles, attempting to locate a suitable vein for intravenous fluids. I was terrified.

    It was my second week in the Peruvian Andes when I succumbed to the typical traveler’s sickness that afflicts most foreigners. Bodily fluids were rapidly departing from every orifice of my body and I was unconscious within five hours of experiencing the first symptoms. To this day I thank the twelve-year-old boy (see picture) who spotted the deranged, smelly blonde girl and flagged down help to get me to the clinic. From the hospital bed I was able to experience, up close and personal, the Peruvian healthcare system.

    Melanie Collins and Friend

    Melanie Collins and Friend

    Within the small clinic in this Peruvian village I saw and experienced many things that frightened me. There was a clear lack of sanitation, an absence of competency among the staff, and a failure to respect my medical privacy. Nonetheless, perhaps the most frightening occurrence was at the end of my stay when I went to pay my bill. The total cost came to 12.5 Peruvian Nuevo Soles. The nurse promptly asked how long I would be staying in Peru in order to set up a payment plan for this bill. I was dumbfounded, realizing that the bill amounted to less than five American dollars. I paid the bill in full and left the clinic – a bit queasy, but thankful I was hydrated and conscious.

    As I began to slowly regain my health, the question about the payment plan lingered in my mind. The reality is, most people in that village would not have been able to afford the five American dollars, out-of-pocket, to pay for this substandard treatment. I wondered - would they have even treated someone whom they knew could not pay the bill? My experience in this clinic illuminated more than global economic inequality, but also the harsh disparities in healthcare systems around the world. It may not come as a shock that life expectancy and GDP per capita of nations around the world correlate lockstep, trending upwards. In other words – the richer the nation, the longer people will live. What is startling is the outlier to this trend: Cuba.

    The average Cuban per-capita income is $4,000 per year, but its health statistics are on par with some of the wealthiest countries in the world. Life expectancy is equivalent to the United States at 79 years and infant mortality rates are actually lower in Cuba. Cuba boasts these statistics under a healthcare system owned by the government and available for everyone. Cuba provides us with a revolutionary (no pun intended) concept: a right to healthcare irrespective of personal income. If Cuba is able to achieve this goal, what is preventing other nations from doing so?

    With the exception of the United States, universal healthcare is a right in many wealthy, industrialized nations – but why should it be limited to these countries? Cuba demonstrates the possibility of universal healthcare without dramatic economic growth. In Cuba, people live modestly, but still have access to doctors and medicine. Thus, we must stop accepting disparate healthcare as a necessary consequence of global economic inequality. Cuba demonstrates that it is possible to provide people with adequate healthcare, a right to life even, without tackling the larger problem of restructuring global economics (at least not just yet).

    There is, however, an important lesson for the United States. It is first necessary to reform healthcare domestically in the United States before we can contribute to meaningful change around the world. Our own failures with healthcare – and a lack of universal access -- prevent us from being able to add much to the international conversation about health care. There is no reason that a Peruvian – let alone an American -- should be denied healthcare because they cannot afford an out-of-pocket payment for treatment. It is time to recognize universal healthcare as a right to life, and attack this problem on a global scale.

  • Thinking About Obamacare

    A family that hasn’t benefitted much from the Affordable Care Act, keeps the big picture in mind. By Samantha Scott ’16

    By Samantha Scott ‘16

    Samantha Scott '16

    Samantha Scott '16

    My family is typical of the “Happy Valley” right outside Northampton, Massachusetts. We are pretty liberal and progressive thinking. So, naturally, when The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was passed our neighbors and we were overjoyed. But has Obamacare done much in particular for my family to warrant this happiness?

    Honestly, not a whole lot!

    Obamacare may be a great idea and helping many people, but my family is not really one of them, at least not to any great extent. We are lucky enough to live in a state that more or less already has it’s own version of Obamacare. You are required to have health insurance in Massachusetts and, for those who aren’t so well off, the state helps subsidize your insurance payments. So, most of the benefits we already have are thanks for Governor Mitt Romney and the state legislature and not to Obamacare. Nevertheless, my family is still very much excited by its prospects.

    But how can we feel that way even if it is not benefitting us?

    Obamacare is exciting because, finally, we have a national plan that gives a lot more people the opportunity to have health insurance and care. This is a huge leap in the right direction. So, while it is not directly helping us much, it is making a difference in the lives of millions of other people in our country. That makes for a country that is healthier and happier, which benefits all the rest of us.

    Obamacare represents opportunity and equality as well. No longer are women discriminated against under this plan. Women do not pay more for health insurance under Obamacare, an alarming and astounding truth that unfortunately happened under many other health care plans. Also, birth control is now completely free to those women who have Obamacare and wish to have birth control. This is not only a step toward more equality, but also for reproductive rights as well. This provision of Obamacare also diminishes the prevailing stigma against birth control, other safe sex measures, and the women who choose to safely utilize them. What’s more, you can no longer be discriminated against for a preexisting condition. Under many other plans, an insurance provider could reject your application for insurance or deny you service if you had a preexisting health condition. But isn’t that the point of health insurance? To help those in need of medical assistance who cannot afford it? Obamacare eliminates this unfair double standard. Health insurance is for the sick; it should not make it easy to discriminate against them.

    Obamacare is the next big step in a long pattern of American health care reform throughout the years, and arguably one of the biggest ones yet. It seeks to unify American citizens and help them live fulfilling and more equitable lives without worrying about being able to pay for medical bills at some point down the road.

    So, why are so many Americans upset by its passage into law?

    A big part of the answer is the specter of big government, and Obamacare is definitely an instance of that. It is a government-run program with hundreds of billions of dollars poured into it. Also, it makes it mandatory to have health insurance, which many believe is downright unconstitutional. But then again so are Social Security, Medicare and taxes that pay for highways and schools. So, what’s the big deal?

    Isn’t it truly unconstitutional, for people to be discriminated against for things they have no control over, such as their biological sex, or more limited control, like medical problems? Private health insurance has had the power to discriminate in that way do with no repercussions until now. Health care and insurance is something that everyone should have anyway, so why should it be such a problem to make it mandatory? It is for the betterment of the entire country and those who reside in it. Almost every other advanced industrial society has some kind of mandatory health insurance, and, while not as wealthy as the United States, their populations are usually healthier. In addition, many of these societies have more upward mobility than the US, less economic inequality, and more guarantees on privacy. Finally, these big government programs in other countries spend, on average about half what we do for health care! Well-designed program by big governments have played an important role in these outcomes, so maybe the issue is not whether a government is too big, but how well its serves its people.

    Using that yardstick Obamacare is doing a good job because it is offering access to health care and peace of mind to so many people. It is also exciting because it is taking a big step against discrimination and towards a more progressive nation.

    So… that is why my family is very happy with Obamacare, even though it hasn't done all that much for us personally. Sometimes you just have to think about the big picture.

  • Should Doctors Be Made Accountable?

    There’s a Consumer Reports for just about anything, except medicine. How come?
    by Mary McGinley ’16

    By Mary McGinley ‘16

    Mary McGinley '16

    Mary McGinley '16

    “There is no such thing as an infallible doctor.” –Edward E. Rosenbaum

    Most of us put doctors on pedestals because they are exceedingly smart, skilled, and let’s face it, special. Not everyone can become a doctor. It takes someone who is resilient and with a quick and practical mind to make it in this profession. And we venerate them not just because of how good they are. It is also because we trust them with the one thing that is most sacred to us: our health. Why wouldn’t we put them on pedestals? They have the training, the knowledge, and the experience to help us when we are helpless. So, does that mean it’s okay for them to not let us know just how good at their job they really are?

    I don’t think so!

    The general lack of transparency in the medical world, particularly in the United States, is an issue that needs to be discussed more than it is. In most other aspects of our lives, it would be thought both odd and careless not to research a service or product before giving them your business. We don’t buy cars without checking their reliability and manufacture ratings. We don’t purchase houses or even appliances without making sure of their quality. Personally, I never buy anything on Amazon without first checking the customer satisfaction ratings. So, why is it so different when it comes to doctors? The short answer is that doctors don’t want us to know how unsuccessful they might have been in some of the procedures they have performed. But don’t they owe us the assurance that the person who might be cutting into our one and only body gets it right a lot more often than they don’t?

    Currently, there is an online petition urging Kentucky Children’s Hospital to disclose data on Pediatric Surgery Successes. (http://forcechange.com/71343/urge-hospital-to-disclose-data-on-pediatric-surgery-successes/) Due to a number of failed heart surgeries at the hospital, resulting in either death or the transfer of the child to another hospital, parents of the children demanded to see the success rate data for the hospital. The hospital has refused to disclose this information.

    True, strides have been made disclosing infections incurred by patients in hospitals. After her son’s tragic and preventable death in 2006 due to an in-hospital infection at Orange County Hospital, Carole Moss spearheaded efforts to demand infection rate disclosure at California hospitals. Named after her son, Nile’s Law was put into place January 2010, resulting in a state website with information about infection rates in various hospitals. Predictably, public revelation of data about infection has encouraged better sanitary measures and fewer infections. It’s not rocket science. At websites like http://hospitalinfection.org/legislation.shtml, health care consumers can learn about hospital infection rates in different states to get a better sense of what’s going on behind the scenes.

    If we are starting to implement laws that require infection rate statistics to be made public, why then is it still taboo for a physician’s medical performance to be on public record? According to a study by Ingrid Burger, Kathryn Schill, and Steven Goodman, “major risks of disclosure include inaccurate and misleading performance rates, avoidance of high-risk cases, unjust damage to surgeon’s reputations, and jeopardized patient trust.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1877054/) In my opinion, however, the benefits outweigh those risks. If we can establish a system where quality and safety are always top priorities and patient autonomy is encouraged, why wouldn’t we move forward with that? I’m not saying doctors need to disclose this information online. But, I do think that patients and their families should be able to compare success to failure ratios when deciding where to get a surgery done and by whom. Of course, these statistics should be compiled by professionals and be sensitive to the different risk factors in different procedures. For example, a heart surgeon who is doing a high-risk surgery on a high-risk patient should not be expected to have the same success rate as an orthopedic surgeon who repairs four ACL’s a day. However, if Dr. A has three times the complications with open-heart surgery than Dr. B does, there is clearly a quality gap between these two surgeons that prospective patients need to know, and which must be explained. It’s a serious issue. Dr. Marty Makary in his 2012 book Unaccountable reports that studies have shown that when employees of hospitals are asked if they would feel comfortable being treated on the unit where they work, over 50 percent of the workers at more than half of the hospitals said no.

    The chances are, however, that if a surgeon is actively working at a hospital and performing surgeries, they usually do their job well. Nevertheless, not every procedure goes perfectly and there are unavoidable risks associated with any type of operation. It is also true that people make mistakes and even the most gifted and brilliant doctor is still human. Holding people accountable for their mistakes creates incentives to avoid making them in the first place. Frankly, I can’t imagine any doctors who wouldn’t in retrospect be happy that even uncomfortable social pressure enabled them to avoid making life-threatening mistakes. Thus, we owe it to both ourselves and also to health care workers to hold them accountable for their successes and failures.

  • Why Shouldn’t Nature Reclaim Our Cities?

    There’s a beauty in overgrown parking lots and ruined houses. It’s nature trying to remind us something. by Tiana Eaton ’15.

    Why Shouldn’t Nature Reclaim Our Cities?
    By Tiana Eaton ‘15

    Tiana Eaton '15

    Tiana Eaton '15

     

     

    Can a city be beautiful? Most people will answer, “Yes” to that question and talk about the architecture, the skyline, the hustle and bustle of the city-goers, and other aspects of that concrete jungle the human race has managed to plop right on top of nature. I feel differently. In my opinion, the man-made becomes appealing when I can see signs of its vulnerability in the face of nature.

    I walk down the rough, cemented, gum-stained sidewalks and hope to see tufts of grass peeking through the cracks. I enjoy looking at pictures of abandoned amusement parks, malls, and hotels that were formerly containers for fast-paced, stressed out, caffeinated, and altogether manic humans. When looking at pictures of these things, I am drawn to the way the trees seem to grow out of the ground and directly into buildings, wrapping their branches and vines around the concrete we once attempted to cover them with. There are few pleasures like walking from a busy area down to the beach, noticing the way the sand litters the pavement, refusing to stay behind the fences we have attempted to contain it with.

    Ghost Pods of San Zhi.  Source: Cypherone

    Ghost Pods of San Zhi
    Source: Cypherone, from Creative Commons

     

    I recommend googling the San Zhi neighborhood, an abandoned settlement on the outskirts of Taipei in Taiwan. A mysterious series of accidents rendered this town completely unused after its completion. However, it stood untouched for many years because people in the region believed that the spirits of -- and in -- the dwellings would be angered if their homes were destroyed. It is true that the area was finally demolished by national political authorities in 2009, but similar remnants can be found in Oradour-sur-Glane, France, Kolmanskop, Namibia, and even Gary, Indiana .

    "Devil's Inferno Ride at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park, January 3, 2014 Source: Alyse Wax

    "Devil's Inferno Ride at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park, January 3, 2014
    Source: Alyse Wax

     

    Eerily enough, there is an abandoned amusement park in Florida, not too far from the vibrant commotion that is Disneyworld. Journalist Alyse Wax visited the park in January of 2014 and discovered the powerful beauty of nature reclaiming a bustling, populated, city-like environment. The Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Florida, including Discovery Island and River Country, was open for business from 1974 to 1999. These adjoining parks are the only two Disney parks to ever be closed permanently. Interestingly enough, they were only abandoned, and never demolished. Her pictures of these areas prove just how dominant nature can be if we give up the fight for power. The insides of buildings are overgrown with moss, there are trees and vines growing into and out of old water slides, the water is a dark, emerald green, and the “pool rules” sign has been faded and scraped by the elements.

    Don’t get me wrong. A city can be beautiful. The architecture, the skyline, the vibrant life of its people, the whole concrete jungle is beautiful, but its peculiar beauty is only temporary, and lasts only as long as people are able to fight off nature, upon which, ironically we ultimately depend. That’s why overgrown ruins are also beautiful. They are reminders of something we need to remember about the primacy of nature.

    But what about imagining a city intertwined with nature. Instead of uprooting trees and digging into the soil, we build around them. Imagine an entire building crafted to sit in the treetops, using the colorful glass bottles we have littered onto the earth as a way to fuse together a stained glass window. Imagine going out to dinner at a restaurant that has been built around the trees that already owned that plot of land. Visualize the ways we could introduce nature into our architecture without having to destroy its beauty.

     

    "Sky Greens, Kranji District of Singapore. Spinach and Bok Choy are grown on the towers.  Source: Edwin Koo, New York Times, July 10, 2013

    "Sky Greens, Kranji District of Singapore. Spinach and Bok Choy are grown on the towers.
    Source: Edwin Koo, New York Times, July 10, 2013

    Something like this is already happening in Singapore on a grand scale, where they are building vertical farms in the midst of the city. Leafy green vegetables are grown and then harvested on over one hundred thirty foot towers. There are hints that New Yorkers too are looking for ways to weave a tapestry of nature into the built environment, not just as a park to be admired but as a garden, a farm to be tended. And on a smaller scale, why not dream of driveways with permeable paving, that allow the land to breathe and drink while we enjoy its presence. Now, that might be a truly beautiful city.

     

    "Permeable Pavement" Source: Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons, 25 September, 2007

    "Permeable Pavement"
    Source: Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons, 25 September, 2007

  • Embracing Our Future: Gene Therapy

    We often reject new scientific research in medicine because we fear its possible consequences. Shouldn’t we just embrace it cautiously? by Kathryn Henrikson ’16

    By Kathryn Henrikson '16

    Kathryn Henrikson '16

    Kathryn Henrikson '16

    Jesse Gelsinger was the first person publicly identified as having died during a clinical trial for gene therapy. He was eighteen and living with an X-linked genetic disease of the liver, with symptoms that included the inability to metabolize ammonia- a byproduct of protein breakdown. On September 13th, 1999, Jesse was injected with an adenoviral vector (a specific type of virus), which carried the normal gene. Four days later, he died from a massive immune response triggered by the viral vector. His body perceived the virus carrying the new gene to be a threat and therefore began attacking itself, eventually causing organ failure.

    Terrible events like Jesse’s death, however, have not slowed the pace of medical innovation as physicians rely more on machines and computers and less on what they learned in school. America may be home to the world’s finest doctors and medical facilities, but with the introduction of robots into the medical system, it is becoming more common for surgeries and exams to be done by machine rather than actual surgeons and physicians. In some cases a doctor may even be replaced with a robot that has a monitor connecting the patient to a physician in another country. Health care specialists increasingly believe that advanced research in medicine is helping us find cures for diseases that were once guaranteed to result in death.

     

    Technique of replacing defective gene in the retina of the eye.

    Technique of replacing defective gene in the retina of the eye.

     

    Gene therapy, which replaces diseased or mutated genes with normal genes, is at the edge of one of these new technological frontiers. It works by introducing new, healthier, genes into the body through the injection of a virus. Not surprisingly, increased research on the use of therapies like this has frequently raised concerns that doctors have gone too far and are “playing God,” because altering our genetic material is against God’s will. Even many people who are not religious also are worried about the possible misuse of gene therapy. For example, a couple aware of their genetic makeup may decide not to have children in order to avoid passing on a defective gene, even if the likelihood of that happening is small. Even more troubling for many is the idea that people might try to use gene therapy to “design” a perfect baby.

    In order for the new gene to be effective in the body, it must be delivered using a virus. This procedure usually involves inserting a normal or slightly modified version of a normal gene sequence into a virus. The virus will then carry the gene through the patient’s body to the targeted tissue. Gene therapy has had some successes, especially in the treatment of muscular dystrophy. Nevertheless, there is always a risk that a patient’s immune system may reject the inserted virus as an intruder and, in a worst case scenario, kill the patient. So why is it still being done?

    Think about it for a moment. If the same concern that had been raised about immunization and surgery at the turn of the last century had encouraged doctors not to pursue medical research, we would still be relying on the same technology and medical treatments that were prevalent at that time. We would not have vaccines for smallpox, polio, or chicken pox; penicillin would never have been discovered, and the average life expectancy in the U.S. would be half of what it is today. Most of us who are living right now would not have the luxury of debating what was natural, and what was not.

    It has to be acknowledged that there are many risks with gene therapy and that our understanding of what is involved in the process is just in its infancy. But we should not be surprised when these problems are solved after more research and trials. After all, every therapy has inevitably been riskier and more perilous in the early stages of its development. All surgery was more dangerous in the past and vaccines were less effective, and had more side effects. It’s a hard truth but improvements in medical treatment require lots of trial and error and practice.  Sooner or later, all promising research requires risky clinical trials and, without them, there would be no medical progress. There is a lot at stake with gene therapy, quite apart from its risks. Most of our current surgical, radiological and drug therapies contain diseases by reducing their impact on those afflicted. Gene therapy, in contrast, offers the hope of removing the disease completely.