Category Archives: Science

Young Parents, Old Parents, and Children

My grandmother gave birth to my father when she was 19-years old, and I've been especially lucky, well into adulthood, to have a close relationship with healthy, young-at-heart, active grandparents. Yesterday they sent my boyfriend and me John F. Kennedy chocolate gelt for Channukah, which was pretty cool. But my grandparents, who are wonderfully creative and intellectually curious people, never went to college; between them, they worked in retail, at banks, in medical offices, and doing childcare, though they could have thrived as artists, as teachers, or in many other professions. My grandfather is an expert photographer and is passionate about history, and my grandmother paints and cooks beautifully, in addition to being one of the warmest people most of her family and friends have ever met. When our clan gathered at my aunt's house for Thanksgiving this year, I thought a lot about the shape of my grandparents' lives. Their three kids all went to college and graduate school, and waited until their mid or late-thrities to reproduce. Today the joy of three children and four grandchildren is overwhelming, and my grandparents may someday meet their great-grandchildren, as well. Yet they have never been rich, or been their own boss, or achieved the financial stability they would have liked. I'll have far fewer years with my descendents than they have had with theirs, but I'll also have an intellectually challenging career, more money, and fancier vacations, too. Life is full of trade-offs. 

So I was really moved by Judith Shulevitz's New Republic cover story on the health and social effects of delaying parenthood. Now that it looks like advanced paternal age is correlated with autism spectrum disorders and certain mental illnesses in children, men might finally join women in the anxiety Olympics over how to fit education, career, the search for true love, and reproduction into the ever-shrinking window of opportunity before one's 35th birthday. As Shulevitz states, we'll "have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women’s problem, and reframe it as a basic human right." Correct. Similarly, it's refreshing to read about the potentially problematic breeding practices not of young, unwed single moms, but of some of the affluent, hyper-educated married couples who delay childrearing into their forties or even beyond, and who will be well into senior citizenship by the time their children are fully "launched" into the adult world.

But. The risk is that by focusing on the genetic and epigenetic ways in which disabled, differently-abled, or simply complex children come into the world, we blame parents for their kids' disabilities, or begin to see conditions like autism and schitzophrenia as the "fault" of parents who could have made a different set of choices. In part, this is already happening with Down syndrome. The risk for Down syndrome goes up significantly when an expectant mother reaches 35, but 80 percent of children born with Down syndrome are delivered by women younger than 35. Because these mothers are not in the highest-risk group, they are often counseled to forgo more invasive and riskier Down syndrome tests. When I reported on Down syndrome screening in 2010, I talked to several mothers who had been pained by strangers' assumptions that because they had a child with Down syndrome, they had somehow failed to undergo basic prenatal medical care. The truth is that although 90 percent of parents who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis choose to abort, there are no failsafe tests, and most parents are surprised when a child is diagnosed with Down syndrome or any other disability. Other parents actively choose to carry atypical pregnancies to term, for religious or other personal reasons. 

Prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other disabilities will become more sophisiticated and safer. Someday there may be a prenatal screening for autism. But there will always be differently-abled children, like Shulevitz's son, and I know she would agree that once they are with us in the world, we ought to focus more on how to best meet their needs than on the supposed reproductive failures of their parents. (The same goes for poor children, by the way, born to single moms.) Better genetic science may mean more social pressure on both men and women to reproduce in their twenties and early thirties, but I hope it never means we lose our compassion for the disabled children of older parents, or for the adults who wait for romantic or financial stability before having children. 

On Algebra, High Expectations, and the Common Core

I'm currently working on a long article about the Common Core, which focuses mostly on the new standards' implications for the humanities. But while I was reporting the piece, one thing I heard from critics of the Core was that is might be dangerous to connect high school graduation requirements with the Core's expectation that all students conquer algebra. Why? Because, in the words of Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, "Education reform has stalled on Algebra 2. The more you demand it, the more drop-outs you have."

In today's New York Times, Andrew Hacker agrees that algebra is unnecessary for most students, though he doesn't mention that because 48 states and territories are planning to adopt the Common Core, the energy in school reform is tilting very much in favor of algebra. Here's the crux of Hacker's argument:

To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.

Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.

California’s two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.

“There are students taking these courses three, four, five times,” says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, “many drop out.”

Hacker suggests that instead of algebra, students should be required to take statistics, a type of math that he sees as more influential in the political and business worlds. He'd like students to spend less time on polynomials and more time learning how the Consumer Price Index is calculated.

There's a strong argument to be made that math is taught poorly in many schools, with little attention paid to how most people are likely to use numbers in the real world, or how math is applicable to economics, the sciences, and government. But this argument also has a disturbing slippery slope quality; if teenagers find any somewhat obscure task difficult (like reading Shakespeare or doing library research), should they be allowed, or even be encouraged, to avoid learning it? A great teacher can often spark interest in a subject a student thought she would never enjoy. One reason to have more rigorous academic standards is to leave open the possibility of that magic happening more often for more young people, and to make sure unfair streotypes about who is "academic" don't prevent kids from discovering unexpected passions. 

These debates are ultimately about tracking: whether it's fair or desirable to expect all K-12 students to work through the same academic standards, or whether it makes sense, especially in the high school years, to do some sorting according to students' interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Many high schools, of course, already sort students through honors, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate tracks; the goal of the Common Core is to get all students performing at those levels.

In other Western nations, such as Germany and Switzerland, it would be considered absurd to say that all 16-year olds should be spending their days learning the same stuff. Nevertheless, that is the tenor of current mainstream education reform thinking in the United States, and I expect we'll be arguing loudly in the coming years over whether that ideology is admirably idealistic or willfully naive. 

There Has Never Been a Female Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Gates

One of my personal educational regrets is that I never took a computer programming course. So I really enjoyed reporting this Slate piece on what schools and parents can do to hook girls early on the kind of "computational thinking" that can help them succeed in high-tech careers. Currently, women hold fewer than one-third of American computer science jobs.

The effects of this gender gap reach far beyond whether women are building video games or coding Web apps alongside men (and making technology female-friendly—remember the Siri/abortion flap? Or the more recent dust-up over Asus’ leering tweet?). Over the past 10 years, three times as many jobs have been created in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—than in non-STEM fields, and STEM workers have been far less likely to experience unemployment. Women who work in STEM also earn more than other female workers: an average of $31.11 an hour, compared with $19.26 for non-STEM women. The wage gap between the genders is also smaller in STEM fields, just 14 percent, compared with the 21 percent difference between men’s and women’s earning powers in the rest of the workforce.

Economists expect those trends to continue over the coming decade. And if American women can’t step up to meet the growing demand, our foreign competitors will. Brazil, India, and Malaysia are among the rising powers that have much more successfully prepared girls to enter computer science.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, calls the fight to attract girls and young women to high-tech careers "our generation’s major frontier for equal outcomes for women." And Sandberg has a counterintuitive suggestion for how to close that gap: “Let your daughters play video games. Encourage your daughters to play video games!” she told me in an interview last fall.

Read the whole piece.

In Defense of Computer Engineer Barbie

Computerengineerbarbie This new Barbie is an early holiday season release, and was chosen by popular vote online from among five career options: news anchorwoman (the other winner), surgeon, environmentalist, and architect.

The Gloss snarks, "I had never known that being a computer engineer entails wearing sequined pants and browsing some sort of Barbie based site. Being a computer engineer is so much sparklier and pinker than I ever expected."

Lori MacVittie writes that what girls need to get interested in computer science are details about the skills a computer engineer uses and the cool products they develop–not a doll that glamorizes the profession while promoting unrealistic beauty standards. 

It's true that girls need and deserve detailed and accessible introductions to technology. And that's why it's a good thing that some girls will be introduced to computer engineering as a possible career path by this rather silly-looking Barbie doll.

Women earn 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees, but just 15 percent of those in computer science and 11 percent of those in computer engineering. 

In academia, just 18 percent of tenure-track computer science hires are female. 

The Department of Labor estimates that women make up just 19.4 percent of computer hardware engineers; 24.8 percent of those in "computer and mathematical" jobs (like programming); and 27.2 percent of computer and information systems managers.

In other words, the gender gap in high-tech fields is so huge that we should be reaching out to girls wherever they are to promote a more active interest in science, technology, math, and engineering. 

These are highly-paid jobs in fields that are growing, not contracting. Computer engineer Barbie's anchorwoman Barbie friend, on the other hand, will likely be out of a job soon when her local station is folded into an international conglomerate that airs advertorial instead of serious investigative journalism.

Sigh. 

Facts About “Snowflake Babies”

To protest President Obama's lifting of the ban on stem cell research, Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey is hosting a press event this afternoon featuring so-called "snowflake babies." These children are the result of one couple donating a frozen embryo, conceived through in vitro fertilization, to another. When George W. Bush banned embryonic stem cell research in 2001, he appeared publicly with snowflake kids and their parents.

But is the possibility of embryo "adoption" really an argument against stem cell research? Not at all. There are approximately 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States, but less than 2,000 children have been born through embryo donation. As Liza Mundy reported in a 2006 Mother Jones feature and subsequent book, couples often agonize for years over what to do with embryos left-over from IVF treatments. But a study by Northwestern University psychologist Susan Klock found that almost every couple who believed they would donate an embryo to another, infertile couple ended up backing out. Why? It was just too strange for those parents to think of another family raising children that would have been, biologically, the full siblings of their own kids. Far more parents were comfortable with donating the embryos to scientific research, or simply allowing them to languish in a laboratory.

In short, given the tiny interest in embryo donation and adoption, there is no reason why embryonic stem cell research cannot coexist with "snowflake" programs. Some experts, though, go even further, calling embryonic adoption unsafe. Arthur Kaplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has said such programs are a "sham" perpetrated by anti-abortion activists intent on portraying all fertilized eggs as full-fledged human beings. Kaplan writes, "If you are infertile and are trying to have a baby, your best bet is not to use a frozen embryo made by a couple who had themselves been going through infertility treatment and whose embryos were not used because they did not look healthy enough."

cross-posted at TAPPED

Are Autism and Schitzophrenia the Same Disease?

Now that the election is over, all of our brains are free to consider a broad range of topics beyond electoral politics. Thank goodness, right? I was fascinated by a piece from yesterday's Science Times about an experimental and mostly, so far, untested theory of genetics. It posits that autism, schizophrenia, and most other psychiatric conditions are actually all the same disorder, just filtered through genes of different genders. I know this is strange and complicated, so I'll let Times writer Benedict Carey explain:

Their idea is, in broad outline, straightforward. Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock propose that an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. …

In short: autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most, if not all, psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. The theory has no use for psychiatry’s many separate categories for disorders, and it would give genetic findings an entirely new dimension.

In part, this makes intuitive sense. Autism spectrum conditions, including Asperger's Syndrome, have often been described as encompassing "extreme male" behavior — at least in terms of our stereotypes about how men behave. Similarly, disorders such as anxiety and depression recall stereotypes of femininity. On the extreme end of that spectrum, psychosis and hysteria are conditions that, up through Freud's time, experts believed afflicted only women. Doctors (they were almost all male, of course) thought these diseases were derived from menstruation, ignoring the social factors throughout history that have contributed to women's increased levels of anxiety and depression.

Today, we thankfully understand that men and women suffer from all of these conditions, even if some of them are more prevalent in one gender than the other. It would be fascinating to learn that our parents' genes are locked in an existential struggle to assert themselves in us, not least because it seems to affirm a cultural narrative of war between the sexes. But I'm very cautious about untested genetic theories that seem to map so closely onto our stereotypes about gender. They are so satisfying, so affirming of our biases, that they ought to be treated with extra care and held to a high standard of proof.

Race and IQ

My knowledge of genetic science is limited, but for the sake of conversation, I’d like to point to a series of Slate columns by William Saletan that buy into the theory that black people, on the whole, are less intelligent than whites, who are in turn less intelligent than Asians. Saletan says he’s been mostly convinced by race-matters IQ studies, no matter their small correlation values. He points to the smaller brain size of sub-Saharan Africans, and to studies showing that African children develop earlier and grow into more dexterous adults, while whites and Asians are late bloomers with bigger brains.

But after laying out an argument that confirms centuries of racist ideology, Saletan reassures his readers that yes, he’s still an egalitarian! After all, many individuals within each race buck the IQ trends. Hey, there are lots of stupid white people! And there’s always Barack Obama! (Saletan’s example, not mine.) So, despite everything Saletan has just written, he chides readers who might assume it’s now okay to judge people based on the color of their skin.

The argument is schizophrenic, not least because while IQ may be a good predictor of an individual’s academic and career success, Saletan doesn’t grapple fully with the fact that while we know both genetics and environment affect a person’s IQ, there’s little evidence that genetics are the more important factor. Indeed, as Saletan points out himself in an aside:

Hereditarians admit that by their own reading of the data, non-genetic factors account for 20 to 50 percent of IQ variation. They think malnutrition, disease, and educational deprivation account for a big portion of the 30-point IQ gap between whites and black Africans. They think alleviation of these factors in the U.S. has helped us halve the deficit. Trans-racial adoption studies validate this. Korean adoption studies suggest a malnutrition effect of perhaps 10 IQ points. And everyone agrees that the black-white IQ gap closed significantly during the 20th century, which can’t have been due to genes.

Does discussion about possible links between race and intelligence belong in our public discourse? Only if we exercise great caution. Deciding to believe that historically discriminated against Americans are dumber than whites, and then patting yourself on the back for remaining a political "egalitarian?" That doesn’t cut it. We should never talk about how American children of different races perform on IQ tests without noting the vast inequalities in access to health care, nutrition, early childhood education, safe schools, and good teachers that still exist — not in some theoretical society, but right here in the United States. Black children are much more likely to have been born preterm, to be uninsured, and to live in extreme poverty. About two-thirds of black kids attend racially and economically isolated schools, and those who don’t are much more likely to be as proficient in math and reading as their white peers, even when they come from poor families.

How can we possibly draw conclusions about race, genetics, and intelligence in America until we significantly close these environmental disparities? Until then, any claim that black Americans are genetically inferior to white Americans is counterintuitive guesswork at best, and nefarious at worst.

cross-posted at TAPPED

Abortion “Eugenics” Debate Gathers Steam

As I was reminded during my travels, the abortion debate is by no means confined to America’s borders. I saw anti-choice posters featuring fetuses on the street in downtown Vienna. But that’s old-school anti-abortion activism; one newer strategy, in both the U.S. and abroad, is to portray the procedure as a form of "eugenics," whipping up moral panic over the fact that due to advances in prenatal genetic testing, up to 90 percent of expectant parents who receive a definitive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are now choosing to terminate their pregnancies. Now, as Agence France Presse reports (via Kaiser Daily Women’s Health Policy Report), Italy is awash in controversy over a botched June abortion in which the wrong twin fetus — the one without Down syndrome — was aborted. The pregnant woman chose to abort her second fetus when she learned of the mistake, and reported her doctors to the police. The Vatican’s newspaper called the woman’s original choice to abort "illegitimate." And an Italian senator wrote an op-ed declaring, "What happened in this hospital was not a medical abortion but an abortion done for the purposes of eugenics."

The intersection of reproductive justice and disability rights is one of the thorniest in medical ethics, and pregnant women are feeling the pressure on all sides. It shouldn’t be presumed, for example, that women of color, poor women, or single parents will be more interested in terminating Down syndrome pregnancies because of fewer resources to care for a disabled child. In fact, in the American Latino community, more parents choose to continue such pregnancies.

But families who do decide to abort — and who often go into genetic testing knowing they will terminate an affected pregnancy — should not be pressured to meet with parents raising children with Down syndrome. Such programs are gaining popularity in the Down syndrome community, since parents of kids with the condition are understandably concerned that fewer people with Down syndrome means fewer resources devoted to helping people with the disease. It is this anxiety within the disability rights community that anti-choicers are poised to exploit, even as disability advocates reach out to the pro-choice community in an attempt to increase understanding. If you’re interested in learning more about that dialogue, check out this piece of mine from In These Times.

Of course, it’s long been an anti-choice tactic to create an acceptability hierarchy of women’s reasons for choosing abortion. Remember South Dakota state representative Bill Napoli saying that the only moral abortion would be for a religious teenage virgin who’d been brutally raped and sodomized? The problem, of course, is that most people live in a world not of moral absolutes, but of gray areas, and want their laws to reflect that. That’s why South Dakota voters rejected their no-exceptions abortion ban last year. So in a time of increased worry over the uses of genetic medicine, we should be on the lookout for attempts to smear women’s choices with the label "eugenics." It’s simple common sense that not every family can, at any given point in their lives, accept the burden of raising a severely disabled child, just as not every family can accept the burden of raising any child.

My Child/My Sibling

Hat tip to friends Annie and Lauren: The debate between reproductive health advocates and the disability rights community is usually framed as a question of how far medicine can ethically go to prevent disability without further stigmatizing the disabled. There is deep concern, for example, about the fact that 90 percent of expectant parents who receive a definitive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are choosing to terminate their pregnancies.

Here’s a new ethical quandry: The mother of a Canadian little girl born with Turner’s syndrome, a genetic condition that results in infertility, has frozen her own eggs for possible future use by her daughter. Of course, if the girl does want children someday, she will have the option of either using these eggs or taking another route, such as adoption. Though sister-sister egg donation is relatively common, this is the first time a mother has donated to a child. And there’s concern that having your mother also be your sister could cause "geneaological bewilderment" for a child.

Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics told the BBC, "We have to stop thinking of women only in terms of their reproductive potential. The daughter could live a full and happy life without having children of her own."

-cross-posted at TAPPED

Genetic Disorder

My article on disparities in access to prenatal testing went online today at In These Times. I report on Medicaid’s lack of coverage of the most advanced prenatal testing and genetic counseling, which can help expectant parents choose whether or not to undergo screening for diseases such as Down syndrome, and also help them to assess their options in a non-directive way once they receive a prenatal diagnosis.