Freedom From Genetic Discrimination

WASHINGTON - On January 20, 1998 the White House endorsed a federal ban on genetic discrimination against workers in hiring and promotion, according to an article by Susan Page in USA Today.

The announcement is an effort to protect employees against a form of discrimination that did not exist a decade ago. That is genetic discrimination.

This follows the development of tests that can identify the presence of many genetic conditions such as Huntington's disease before they become clinically evident. The tendency to disorders such as breast and colon cancer is also becoming detectable.

"In the next five to 10 years, there will be tens if not hundreds of genetic-predisposition tests available," said Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project. "If no protections are in place, it could be used to deny us a job, and that seems patently unfair. One thing you don't have much choice about is your DNA sequence."

The White House ban would, according to USA Today, serve to:

  • Prohibit employers from requiring (or requesting) a genetic test or genetic information as a condition of being hired or receiving benefits;
  • Prohibit employers from using genetic information to limit job opportunities; but
  • Permit the use of genetic information and testing in some situations to ensure health and safety in the workplace, and preserve research opportunities.

This proposal pertaining to employment may be paired with a bill to ban genetic discrimination in health insurance. President Clinton backed such a proposal in July, 1997. The announcement of the White House's position is thought likely to catalyze Congressional efforts to enact genetic protections. But insurance companies and others argue that federal rules would be an unwarranted intrusion. "Why address something that is not a pressing problem today?" Patricia Powers of the Pacific Business Group on Health, a coalition of 34 big employers, told USA Today. "There are so many other pressing problems in health care."

However, a survey of 400 employers by Northwestern National Life Insurance in 1989 found that 15% planned to check the genetic status of job applicants by the year 2000. And health insurers have been known more than once to refuse coverage on the basis of a preexisting condition.

Last Editorial Review: 2/25/1998