Don’t brand children with a genetic scarlet letter

by Madison Hopkins

Looking back on the recent tragedies our country has faced, it’s natural to wonder if they could have been prevented. People demand change for gun control, security and mental health facilities in endless attempts to thwart future criminals from following suit. Bystanders find comfort in distancing themselves from the perpetrators, deeming them “antisocial” or “mentally unstable,” often without any concrete scientific backup. It’s easier to believe that no normal person could do this kind of horrendous act rather than attempt to comprehend that someone you know could be the next Adam Lanza or James Holmes.

But what if you could know? What if an individual’s likelihood of eventually committing a violent crime could be known from an early age? Science is getting closer to this reality. Within the human genome, researchers have found that the presence of a “low activity” amount of the MAOA allele, in combination with a problematic upbringing, can result in the individual being 85 percent more likely to commit violent behavior in the future.

When such information was first revealed in the 1960s, there was a push toward universal testing of all 6-year-olds in the nation to check for potentially criminal behavior and aggression. However, because of the lack of accuracy, the idea was shut down—until now. We are coming dangerously close to a point where this is not only a possibility, but a reality. However, in such a state, we would need to deeply consider how much we actually want to know and what this knowledge would even mean.

In a perfect world, individual information about one’s future behavior would be used for good, and crime would simply cease to exist. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. In my mind, the universal testing of young children, and therefore the labeling of “misfits,” is the first step in an entirely new wave of discrimination. I’m imagining initial shock and disdain toward undesirable children, leading parents to forbid playdates with violent kids, separate schools for the criminally unstable, a genome test on college applications and eventually a scarlet “V” branded on the innocent’s clothing. That might be a bit extreme, but I think I’ve made my point. Children who have done nothing wrong would be unfairly categorized by something they’re born with. It’s essentially the definition of discrimination.

Obviously, the intentions of such tests wouldn’t be to negatively impact the child. They would ideally lead to opportunities to nurture potentially criminal children and foster peaceful behavior. The only problem with this model situation is it’s nearly impossible to do so universally without the demand to take action. Regardless of whether or not the information was provided privately to the parents only, there is no guaranteeing they could remain in control. It wouldn’t be long before the next mass murder works the public up into a frenzy of controlling the misfits, not unlike the demand for gun control today. If such a thing were to happen, the parents of innocent 6-year-olds could do little to protect their children from the awaiting stigma.

Even if the decision to seek treatment remained within the parents’ control, it’s possible the knowledge would still come to no avail. The probability of antisocial behavior is dependent on both the presence of the mutated allele and bad conditions in the home. It’s impossible to say exactly how parents would react, but it could be safe to assume some abusive or problematic parents may not take the necessary measures to ensure their child’s future mental health. Even those who are willing to put in the effort may not be able to afford therapy or other suitable programs. Essentially, the idea of universal testing may sound good in theory, but without legitimate and private action, it may only lead to a young child being told he or she is different, or “not good enough.”

That is not to say the information itself is without value. Parents could privately make the decision to test their child if they feel it is right. This would both ease the minds of concerned parents, as well as alert those who may have a more neurotic problem on their hands. By keeping the decision optional and private, the children would be relinquished from unnecessary concerns of what they could someday become. If there is something to worry about, the parents could then privately take the necessary proactive moves, without fear of their child being publically judged.

When it comes down to it, the idea of testing someone’s genome for potentially violent triggers is medical and psychological. Both of those aspects are confidential to the individual and their medical providers. Demanding everyone be tested at a young age may start off innocently enough, but would lead to negative extenuating circumstances for those targeted. The idea of preventing horrific crimes before they happen is a goal to continually work for, just not at the expense of innocent children.