genetic synecdoche

Together with philosopher David Wasserman, Asch wrote in 2005 that using genetic tests to screen out a fetus with a known disability is evidence of pernicious “synecdoche.” Ordinarily, synecdoche is a value-neutral figure of speech, in which some single part stands for the whole—as in the common use of “White House” to stand for the executive branch of government. But Asch and Wasserman’s meaning was more loaded: prenatal genetic tests, they argued, too often let a single trait become the sole characteristic of a fetus, allowing it to “obscure or efface the whole.” In other words, genetic data, once known, generally become the only data in the room. Taking a “synecdochal approach” to prenatal testing, Asch and Wasserman warned—in the era just prior to consumer genetic sequencing—allows one fact about a potential child to “overwhelm and negate all other hoped-for attributes.”

We won’t know what Asch would have made of 23andMe, designer babies, or broader claims for personal genomics. But her intellectual legacy only grows more relevant in the era of ever-cheaper, personalized genetic data. Asch understood that there are plenty of things technologies like prenatal genetic testing can tell us. But the choices and challenges in defining a life worth living, and living well—it may be that these aren’t technological problems at all.