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Ethical dangers of facial phenotyping through photography in psychiatric genomics studies


Psychiatric genomics research protocols are increasingly incorporating tools of deep phenotyping to observe and examine phenotypic abnormalities among individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. In particular, photography and the use of two-dimensional and three-dimensional facial analysis is thought to shed further light on the phenotypic expression of the genes underlying neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as provide potential diagnostic tools for clinicians. In this paper, I argue that the research use of photography to aid facial phenotyping raises deeply fraught issues from an ethical point of view. First, the process of objectification through photographic imagery and facial analysis could potentially worsen the stigmatisation of persons with neurodevelopmental disorders. Second, the use of photography for facial phenotyping has worrying parallels with the historical misuse of photography to advance positive and negative eugenics around race, ethnicity and intellectual disability. The paper recommends ethical caution in the use of photography and facial phenotyping in psychiatric genomics studies exploring neurodevelopmental disorders, outlining certain necessary safeguards, such as a critical awareness of the history of anthropometric photography use among scientists, as well as the exploration of photographic methodologies that could potentially empower individuals with disabilities.

  • research ethics
  • psychiatry
  • mentally ill and disabled persons
  • genethics
  • disabilities

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