Genetic Discrimination Debate: Should your DNA cost you?

Should insurance companies be permitted to charge higher premiums to those at greater risk for developing genetic diseases; or is this pure discrimination?

Take Katie Lingard for example. In her quest to obtain mandatory insurance coverage required for her to start up her chiropractic practice, she was asked to fill out an insurance application form, which included a number of questions. One such question asked whether there was a history of Huntington’s disease in her family. It turned out that her father was diagnosed with the disease. After indicating this on the form, she was told by the insurance company that if she wanted coverage, she would need to take a blood test to prove she was not a carrier of the gene responsible for Huntington’s disease. In the event her blood results identified her as a carrier, the insurer would likely have denied her application or charged her drastically higher insurance premiums than someone who was not genetically predisposed to the disease. Is this fair?

Katie was able to find another insurance provider willing to offer her the coverage she needed without making her take a blood test but charged her higher premiums and offered her a lower payout given her increased risks.

The insurance industry would argue that this type of genetic risk assessment is important information to know in providing coverage because higher risks means a higher probability of paying out. The industry believes that costs of this risk should be shouldered by the individual; not the other policyholders without such risks.

Although the insurance industry doesn’t require that a genetic test be done specifically for a person to obtain insurance coverage, they will require that if any genetic tests have been done in the past that those results be made available to them. This may cause people to refuse taking certain genetic tests, which may save their life for fear that an insurance company may deny them coverage later on.

The Ontario Human Rights Code protects Ontarians against all forms of discrimination relating to race, ancestry, place of origin, sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation and age among several other categories. However, when the Code was drafted back in the 1980s, the idea of “Genetic Discrimination” was not even on the radar. With the rapid pace of scientific advancement, legislators are introducing laws in an attempt to update the Code to include a prohibition against “genetic characteristics” to go along with the other grounds of discrimination currently set out. The insurance companies will certainly not be happy with this law. It will be interesting to see if it gets passed.

It seems that as humankind advances further in the areas of science and technology, we are moving closer every day to the point where each and every cell in our body; every fiber of our being and every thought in our mind can be tracked, analyzed and interpreted. This opens up the door to privacy, health, and many other consequences. The law should keep pace with this scientific and technological advancement in a way that tackles inequities that may occur while harnessing the fruits of this advancement to be used for social good.


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