ASHG Apologized For Past Harms Of Human Genetics Research

Logo of ASHG

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) apologized (on January 23, 2023) for the participation of some of its early leaders in the American eugenics movement, as well as the Society’ failure to consistently acknowledge and oppose harms and injustices tied to the field, including use of human genetics to feed racism, eugenics, and other forms of discrimination. The Society also pledged to strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; better integrate equity principles in the study and use of human genetics in research and policy; and consistently oppose its unjust use.

The actions stem from a report, also released on January 23, 2023, of the ASHG Facing Our History – Building an Equitable Future initiative. The 27-page report documents roles played, or support provided by early ASHG presidents and other leaders in eugenics programs and highlights times when the Society actively chose not to speak out when human genetics was used to advance racist ends. Finally, it highlights moments in recent decades when the field pivoted toward greater inclusion and equity.

As part of its vision to realize the benefits of human genetics and genomics research for people everywhere, the ASHG Board of Directors established diversity as a top strategic priority in 2018. Following the height of racial and social unrest in 2020, it charged the Society to add this review of its own history. The resulting Facing Our History -Building an Equitable Future initiative includes the report, which was informed by a 13-member Expert Panel of eminent human geneticists, historians, clinician-scientists, and social scientists, and equity scholars. The report process included an intensive research and environmental scan, four Expert Panel meetings, and a community dialogue.

In a statement issued with the report, the ASHG Board of Directors apologized and issued a set of near-term actions and a plan to promptly identify additional steps after securing additional input from the community.  

“ASHG acknowledges and apologizes for the participation of some ASHG founders, past presidents, and other leaders promoting eugenic ideals that resulted in harms to people of minoritized groups,” the statement says. “The Board also apologizes for ASHG’s reticence and silence at times when it could have publicly refuted the misuse of genetics to feed discrimination and racism. [The Society] … decries that genetics has been used to advance systemic harms against people of many marginalized communities, including those based on ‘race’ and ancestry, religious affiliation, indigenous ancestry, LGBTQ+ identities, and ability.” The Society also called on the broader human genetics community to use the moment for greater reflection and action and reaffirmed the value of human genetics knowledge to serve all people.

“The report and its findings are painful and document a history that must be told and taught so we can prevent its resurgence,” said ASHG President Brendan Lee, MD, Ph.D. “The human genetics research community is deeply committed to realizing a future in which all people benefit from this knowledge, and this promising research depends on full and equitable participation. By acknowledging our history and apologizing for wrongs, the Society seeks genuinely to form a stronger foundation for trust and inclusion. With today’s release, we are making concrete commitments to integrate lessons and broader equitable practices throughout our programs, public advocacy and communication, and leadership.”

“This time of reckoning with history is overdue, but it forms the foundation for a brighter future,” said Lee. “The report and statement are initial steps, and we are committed to initiate and strengthen ASHG programs that advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Human genetics has transformative potential to serve human health and society, but we can succeed only if we have full representation and participation of all backgrounds and perspectives.”

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