A Law Student's Attempt to Understand It All.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Genetics and Privacy

Lawmakers are close to passing a bill to prohibit insurance companies and employers from discriminating on the basis of genetic information. (HT: Dan) Their reasons for restricting the use of DNA and genetic encoding information in the determination for insurance or employment stem from a concern of the right to medical privacy and the infancy of medical knowledge on genetics and disease.

The right to medical privacy and the doctor-patient privilege is sacred to our modern society.

The fear is that a company will do a DNA “background check” on its employees or applicants to determine how many useful years of work and an estimate of healthcare costs of a person. Thus, if a person were to be genetically predisposed to breast cancer or a cardiac disease, then the company may not hire that person to save on the bottom line.

The insurance fear is tangential to the employment fear: people with “bad genes” will not be able to buy health insurance because they are “too great a risk” for the insurance companies. Remember, insurance companies are primarily investment corporations that take the premiums of their clients and invest that money in the markets for profit. The more they pay out, the less money they invest and consequently, the less money they make.

Further, medical knowledge on genes and disease is in its infancy.

Some genes seem to flag a greater probability of getting a disease, but that flag is not dispositive. A person can have a “bad gene” and never get ill, and conversely, a person with “good genes” could succumb to breast cancer. There are too many variables to the health of a person (exercise, diet, employment, emotional health, etc.) to use genetics as a deciding factor in employment or insurance decisions.

The reality of our world is that entities crave quantitative data for every decision. Statistics are in vogue with academia, the media, and the man on the street. Every week there is a new statistical study on the effects of caffeine and alcohol on health. USA Today is famous (or infamous) for its colorful charts. The RBI stat in baseball is the most overused and over-analyzed stat in all of sports. Companies are using credit scores in their determination for hiring candidates. In short, our culture has shed its ability to decide abstract ideas based on evidence and philosophies in favor of easy, mathematical decisions based on numbers. Turning to genes and the probabilities of disease are just another story in this line.

1 comment:

  1. Anyone ever see the movie Gattaca? That would is the exact future of what would happen should corporations be allowed to discriminate based on genetics. In the land of freedom and opportunity, people with bad genes would become second class citizens