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Genetic Discrimination (Finally) Outlawed

Reality BaseBy Melissa LafskyJune 19, 2008 12:09 PM


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Since the mapping of the human genome, technology has advanced to radical new levels, allowing doctors and researchers to test for genetic predisposition towards anything from respiratory ailments to cancer. But with the technology advances, concerns arose—rightfully—about the opportunity for "genetic discrimination," in which insurance companies and/or employers could deny an employee medical coverage, or even turn him down for a job, because his genes show an increased likelihood that he'll get sick in the future. Now, the federal government has gotten into the act. Last month, the Senate unanimously passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which states that insurance companies cannot use genetic information to set premiums or determine enrollment eligibility, while employers are barred from using genetic information in decisions about hiring, firing promotions, or access to insurance. The House then passed the bill near-unanimously, and President Bush has signed it into law—all of which presents a noted change from 2003, 2005, and 2007, when similar bills were declared genetically unfit by Congress. So why now, in 2008, is this issue finding the support it needs from both the legislative and executive branches? It may have something to do with the unstoppable progress of science. In October of 2003, when the first version passed in the Senate, researchers had only just finished mapping the human genome, which made it possible to analyze a DNA sample and pinpoint exact predispositions for disease. For the next several years, experts debated whether or not genetic discrimination would occur in practice, or, if it did, whether it would ever be a "widespread problem." Now, with over 1,200 genetic tests available for more than 1,000 different diseases, the idea that employers and insurers could use the technology to make hiring or coverage decisions has hit the mainstream, and there's been evidence amassed to show that genetic discrimination is both alive and has the potential to grow in the future. While no claims of genetic discrimination have been heard in state or federal court yet, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission settled the first case in 2001, involving an employer that conducted undisclosed genetic tests on its employees after they complained of work-related carpal tunnel syndrome. Meanwhile while the Council for Responsible Genetics claims that hundreds more incidents have been documented. Given that this new law will soon be on the books, it's likely we'll start seeing these, and other cases hitting courtrooms in the near future.

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