- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

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. A Time/ CNN survey last summer found that 75 percent of the 1,218 Americans polled did not want insurance companies to know their genetic code, and 84 percent said the government should not have it.

An American Management Association survey of 2,133 employers this year found that seven of them admitted to genetic testing of job applicants or employees.

However, the Society for Human Resource Management, an Alexandria-based association of human resource personnel, is warning its members against genetic tests.

"We think it's personal information and we feel that a person's ability to do the job is of paramount importance, not a hypothetical 'what if' that might not manifest itself for decades," says Elizabeth Owens, governmental affairs representative for the association. She says that the association's own survey showed that employers also do not like the tests.

Some members of Congress agree new legislation is needed.

Republican Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine are introducing legislation this year that would prevent insurance companies from requiring genetic testing and prohibit the use of genetic information to deny coverage or set rates.

"Genetic testing has enormous potential for improving health care in America, but to fully utilize this new science, we must eliminate patients' fears and the potential for insurance discrimination," says Mr. Frist, the only physician in the Senate.

Another bill, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Health Insurance Act, was included in a Senate appropriations bill last year. The provisions on genetic testing were removed before the bill was passed.

Sen. Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, wrote this month in the journal Science that he favors laws that conform to the Universal Declaration of the Human Genome and Human Rights. The United Nations' declaration says: "No one shall be subjected to discrimination based on genetic characteristics that is intended to infringe or has the effect of infringing human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide