Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The wages of short stature. Virginia Postrel has an essay in the current New York Times Magazine about the recent decision by the FDA to allow healthy but constitutionally short children to be treated with synthetic human-growth hormone.

Postrel, who writes a weblog that's popular among the libertarian set, seems to be saying several provocative things, if I'm following her argument correctly:

  • Conditions that are problematic but are not diseases (such as short stature) should be thought about in different terms. People should be allowed to seek out treatment (or not) without stigma, but without any claim on the rest of us, either (i.e., no insurance coverage).
  • The marketplace naturally favors certain types of people -- not just those who are smart, pleasant, and honest, but also those who are tall and good-looking.
  • Banning employers from discriminating on the basis of height or attractiveness is a "slippery slope" that will eventually lead to your neurosurgeon having been chosen on the basis of a lottery.
  • Therefore, growth-hormone treatments are a perfectly normal response for parents seeking to give their kids a leg up in an increasingly competitive culture.

Postrel leaves out some crucial information.

For decades, hGH was given to children with a type of dwarfism known as growth-hormone deficiency. (I'm talking about actual dwarfism, which results in a stature considerably shorter than what Postrel is writing about.)

But as I note in my forthcoming book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes, hGH, originally derived from cadavers, resulted in some people's contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variant of mad-cow disease. Read this Mother Jones report.

Synthetic hGH isn't nearly as dangerous; yet the possibility exists that its use leads to a higher incidence of cancer, according to this BBC report.

Postrel appears to suggest that it makes more sense to give kids shots to make them taller than it is to outlaw discrimination against short people. She needs to think again.

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