Gene Mapping Fuels Fears of Job, Insurance Bias

By Ramstack, Tom | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

Gene Mapping Fuels Fears of Job, Insurance Bias


Ramstack, Tom, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The map of the human genome published this month raises hopes for medical breakthroughs but it also creates a new risk of job discrimination.

A simple blood test could reveal genetic risks for cancer, heart attack and other diseases that rack up enormous medical bills.

Employers and insurers would save millions of dollars if they could identify workers who create the greatest risks and then reject them.

The workers, many of whom might be well-qualified for their positions, could be left with no jobs and no health insurance, merely because they inherited their parents' genes.

The human genome refers to the 3 billion chemical bases that act as building blocks for every cell of a person's body. In its first case ever accusing an employer of genetic discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against freight railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. two weeks ago.

The railroad required employees who filed injury claims to submit to blood tests for genetic testing. One employee refused to be tested for his genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome. He complained to the EEOC that the tests violated his privacy rights.

Three days after the EEOC filed its lawsuit, Burlington Northern Santa Fe announced it would stop genetic tests on employees.

However, the settlement has not stopped concerns among employees, medical ethicists and legal analysts about privacy rights involved in genetic testing.

"There needs to be a federal anti-discrimination law on genetics," says Jonathan Moreno, a University of Virginia biomedical ethics professor. Currently, the issue is governed by what Mr. Moreno called "a crazy quilt" of state laws.

"There is no uniformity of standards and we don't know what's going on," Mr. Moreno says. "Employers and employees need to get some guidance. If they don't, then all the potential of the gene work being done to prevent disease could be lost if people are afraid to be tested." Mr. Moreno also is a former Clinton administration adviser who investigated radiation experiments on humans financed by the federal government.

Concern about discrimination already is tainting the praise that scientists have lavished on mapping the human genome. …

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