The Mixed Blessing of Genetic Choice

The advance of knowledge is often a mixed blessing. Over the past 60 years, nuclear physics has been one obvious example of this truth. Over the next 60 years, genetics may be another.

Today, enterprising firms offer, for a fee, to tell you about your genes. They claim that this knowledge will help you live longer and better. You might, for example, have extra checkups to detect early signs of the diseases that you are most at risk of contracting, or you could alter your diet to reduce that risk. If your chances of a long lifespan are not good, you might buy more life insurance, or even retire early to have enough time to do what you always wanted to do.

Defenders of privacy have worked, with some success, to prevent insurance companies from requiring genetic testing before issuing life insurance. But if individuals can do tests from which insurance companies are barred, and if those who receive adverse genetic information then buy additional life insurance without disclosing the tests that they have taken, they are cheating other holders of life insurance. Premiums will have to increase to cover the losses, and those with a good genetic prognosis may opt out of life insurance to avoid subsidizing the cheats, driving premiums higher still.

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