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President supports ban on genetic discrimination

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush has called for a legislative ban on employment and insurance discrimination based on a person’s genetic makeup.

A Southern Baptist bioethicist welcomed the president’s action, describing genetic discrimination as “a very real and very present threat.”

In his most recent weekly radio address, Bush expressed concerns about the potential abuse of the mapping of the human genome, which was completed in its initial form earlier this year. The president said information from a person’s genetic profile could be used by an employer to refuse to hire that person or by an insurance company to deny coverage or to charge high premiums.

Such discrimination is unjustified, Bush said, “because it involves little more than medical speculation. A genetic predisposition toward cancer or heart disease does not mean the condition will develop. To deny employment or insurance to a healthy person based only on a predisposition violates our country’s belief in equal treatment and individual merit.

“Just as we have addressed discrimination based on race, gender and age, we must now prevent discrimination based on genetic information,” Bush said June 23.

He said his administration was working on legislation to address the issue. Bush did not endorse a version that has been introduced in Congress.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., the new majority leader, and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D.-N.Y., are the chief sponsors of the Genetic Nondiscrimination in Health Insurance and Employment Act, S. 318 and H.R. 602, respectively. Slaughter’s bill already has 252 cosponsors.

While he was governor of Texas, Bush signed into law in 1997 a bill barring genetic discrimination in employment and group health plans, according to the White House.

Though a few states have enacted laws protecting genetic privacy, such federal protection is needed now, said bioethics specialist Ben Mitchell.

“Otherwise, the most personal and sensitive medical information about a patient may be used to keep him or her from getting jobs, having health insurance or securing life insurance,” said Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Patients should have the following rights, Mitchell said:

— “Be informed when their genetic information is being gathered;

— “Be permitted to refuse giving a sample;

— “Know why the sample is being taken;

— “Know who will have access to this information and why, and

— “Be able to require that the information be destroyed from all records and medical data bases.”

“As we continue to learn more about our genes, we will doubtless find that all of us have so-called bad genes — genes that are linked to certain diseases or to conditions that lead to death,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. “And genetic samples taken today can still be screened for those and many other genes 20 years later when our tests will be even more sensitive.”