Selecting Our Children

In April, Germany’s parliament placed limits on the use of genetic diagnosis by insurers and employers. But many of the new law's provisions will be unenforceable in the absence of an international agreement, and some of them, by banning outright embryonic and pre-natal screening for genetic diseases, are ethically absurd.

MELBOURNE – In April, Germany’s parliament placed limits on the use of genetic diagnosis. Is the new German law a model for other countries to follow as we grapple with the ethical issues posed by our growing knowledge of human genetics?

Some provisions of the German law draw on the widely shared ethical principles of respect for individual autonomy and privacy. No one can be tested without his or her consent. Neither employers, nor insurance companies, may require genetic testing. Individuals are granted both the right to know – to be informed of the results of any genetic test about themselves – and the right to choose to live in ignorance of what a genetic test may predict about their future. To discriminate against or stigmatize anyone on account of their genetic characteristics is prohibited.

Desirable as these provisions seem, they could impose a heavy cost on German companies.   If insurance companies outside Germany are permitted to require genetic tests while German companies are prohibited from doing so, then people who know they have life-shortening genetic diagnoses will get their life insurance from German insurance companies. These companies will then find themselves making more payments for premature deaths relative to their competitors. To cover the increased costs, they will have to raise premiums, making themselves uncompetitive.

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