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Genes on Trial: Genetics, Behavior, & the Law
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Viewer's Guide

Pre- and Post-Viewing Questions

This viewer's guide divides the program into three segments, each with a specific theme. The questions are organized accordingly. To find a particular segment on your videotape, begin by setting the counter to 00:00 when you first see the Fred Friendly logo. Then, fast forward to the section in which you are interested.

Theme of Segment 1: Genetic information about a population carries both benefits and risks.

Questions to consider before watching Segment 1 (00:00 to 19:44 on the videotape counter):

  • If you were a scientist interested in conducting a study of a possible genetic basis for addiction to heroin, how would you select the participants? How do you envision the results of your study being put to use?

  • As you watch, think about how you would respond if you were asked to participate in a study of genetic susceptibility to alcohol addiction in your community. What factors might you consider in choosing whether or not to participate?
After watching Segment 1:
  • Were Stanley and Karen under any moral obligation to participate in a scientific study if the results could yield health benefits for other members of their community? Are those same people under a moral obligation not to participate because discrimination against their social groups might result?

  • Should the interests of the Tracy Islanders have been better protected? If so, how, and by whom?

  • What do you think of Barry Mehler's point that the incidence of alcoholism should not be addressed independent of environmental factors such as homelessness, reduced social services, and other stresses on recent immigrant populations? How can scientists remain mindful of the social context in which their studies take place?

Theme of Segment 2: Behavior is complex, and is governed by both genetic and environmental factors.

Questions to consider before watching Segment 2 (19:44 to 28:25 on the videotape counter)
  • If you were a member of a population being used in a genetic study, how do you think greater knowledge of your genome would affect your perception of yourself? Would this depend on the nature of the trait being studied? How might you use the information to your group's advantage?
After watching Segment 2:
  • Francis Collins, playing the role of a university scientist, states that study results show that Tracy Islanders have an increased risk of addiction to alcohol. Even though the research has "no immediate clinical application," journalists trumpet that a "cure for alcoholism" is around the corner. How might scientists and journalists facilitate more accurate coverage of ongoing genetic research? What is the potential impact of inaccurate or sensational reporting of the research?

  • As a journalist, you get word of a study indicating that a particular group has a higher frequency (as compared to the general population) of a gene associated with addiction to heroin. What questions would you have for the scientists you interview? What story would you tell? What headline would it run under? If the research were only preliminary, would you still run the story?

  • Evan Balaban notes that "as scientists, we have conflicting interests. We have responsibilities to communities [but we] always feel pressure to produce some kind of a result." Can a study ever be neutral? How can the interests of the various stakeholders be reflected in the way the results are presented in the media?

Theme of Segment 3: Growing knowledge of the relation between genes and behavior could alter our notion of free will and responsibility under the law.

Questions to consider before watching Segment 3 (28:25 to the end on the videotape counter):
  • Schizophrenia has a genetic component. The disease can be managed with medications, but they have terrible side effects. Suppose you're the judge presiding over the case of a young woman with a history of paranoid schizophrenia who voluntarily went off her medication and subsequently killed a neighbor who came to check on her. Genetic tests show that the defendant has the genetic marker for schizophrenia. Do you think this should be admitted as evidence in the trial? Why or why not?
After watching Segment 3:
  • Do you think defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's argument that a genetic predisposition has taken away Joseph's free will is a valid one? Should Joseph therefore go unpunished? How about prosecutor Victoria Toensing's counter-argument that such a susceptibility makes Joseph a danger to his community? Should he therefore be incarcerated? What are the implications for other people with this gene? Does society stand to gain or lose if courts of law admit evidence about links between genes and individual behavior?

  • Hypothetical journalist Brad Blueblood maintains that since alcoholism is genetically predetermined, there's no point in pouring money into treatment programs. Yet treating many diseases requires not just medical treatment but social measures like prevention and equal access to health care. How can we balance the use of limited resources between social and environmental programs and biomedical treatments?


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