Genetic Discrimination: A Real Threat?




Opinion2.jpgThe Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2007 finally overcame the republican opposition in recent years, and got through the House of the Representatives. With a change in the recent composition of the senate, there is a good chance it would get through there as well. In the recent hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, reemphasized that the “fear of genetic discrimination” threatened the advancement of biomedical research, and urged legislators to vote in favor of the bill so that individuals may “participate in scientific research without the fear of employment or health discrimination.” But does it really?

Whatever your genotype, it’s the phenotype that already has found its way into a system of discrimination globally. For issues related to race and sexual orientation, how can genetic information make any further negative contribution to the current situation? Does it mean if you have “crime”-related genes you cannot join the police force? And so on, till the only remaining “legal” avenues open to such genetically-rejected job seekers would be politics, law, or rap music? That is, if they are determined not to contribute their talent to the huge “underworld” of organized enterprise.

Personally, I have real doubts whether there are any “real” discrimination threats that would materialize in our life times, even in the insurance industry. With the Human Genome Project uncovering the linear sequence of our chromosomes, are we even a fraction closer to understanding to how genes work for real, in life-issues? True, we might be locating associations between genes and a handful of disorders, but in reality the way environment and heredity work together is unknown for more than 99% of illnesses. We know that we have less genes than we once thought, and although the final count is not known, we are only marginally ahead of the roundworm (by a few 1000’s). The three dimensional ways in which our genes work along with so-called “junk DNA” may be real answer, which at our rudimentary level of understanding of molecular heredity, is a distant goal.

It is unthinkable therefore that employers will formulate selection policies using “genetic” criteria when the legal system is overwhelmingly against using even broad phenotypes.

The real issue here is one of the greater debate of genetic commercialization — with so much money sunk in as investments, is it ethical to hand over our genetic information for commercial use despite overwhelming lobbying pressure from the biotech industry? What we need is an ethical stand, even though the actual reality of the matter is different.

Note: The full text of the act is available on http://www.genome.gov/24519851.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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