Meeting to Weigh Medical Ethics

Article excerpt

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

For the past five years, the people of Iceland have been part of an audacious and controversial science project, in which a private company has been studying their genetic, genealogical and medical histories in hopes of learning how some genes cause disease.

The willingness of Icelanders to participate in such a project represents a leap of faith in science and private enterprise unlikely to be seen in the United States, said Halla Thorsteinsdottir, an Icelander who studies genomics at the University of Toronto.

"I don't think (Icelanders) consider this a risky venture," she said.

That's because Iceland has a national health system that covers all citizens, so there's no risk that an individual's private health information could jeopardize his or her health coverage, she said.

Icelanders also see the project as a "clean way of stimulating the economy," she said. And they don't hold the same sense of privacy as do Americans.

Thorsteinsdottir is among the scientists, ethicists and medical professionals speaking at a medical ethics symposium today and Saturday at the University of Oregon. The event, titled "Medical Ethics in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Scandinavia and North America," is free and open to the public.

The conference is part of a three-year series of events in the northwestern United States and Canada intended to highlight the cultural intersections and differences between Scandinavia and the United States. Organizers said Oregon was chosen as the site for the medical ethics event because of the state's leadership on issues such as physician-assisted suicide, medical marijuana and the Oregon Health Plan.

Speakers will address topics such as the ethical issues surrounding studies of human skeletal remains, the pursuit of happiness, and health resource allocation decisions.

Thorsteinsdottir will talk about the Iceland genomics project, which has been controversial since its inception in 1998. The Icelandic parliament passed a law calling for the creation of a centralized database of all citizens' genealogical, genetic and personal medical information.

The government granted deCode Genetics, a publicly trade biomedical company, exclusive access to the national health records. …