Identity Isn't in The Genes

In A preemptive strike of sorts, President Clinton has prohibited federal employers from discriminating against workers based on genetic data. The president acted with an eye to the imminent completion of the human-genome project - which will map every gene in the body - and the increased medical forecasting it will generate.

The potential for genetics to influence decisions on hiring or insurance coverage is substantial. Bosses and insurers might be sorely tempted to avoid future costs by shutting the door on people thought to be at risk for certain diseases.

That, of course, would be grossly unfair for a number of reasons.

First, even geneticists differ over just how determinative genes are.

Second, in most cases genetic information should be a strictly private matter that employers and insurers have no right to use.

Third, and most important, no physical factor - whether genes, skin color, or weight - could possibly predict the talents and abilities of individual human beings.

Moral and spiritual qualities - insight, wisdom, and compassion, for instance - are not distributed genetically. Yet they're critical to one's usefulness as an employee.

Mr. Clinton's decision to protect 2.8 million federal workers from genetic discrimination is timely. A number of states are considering legislation to implement their own bans on such discrimination. And bills are before Congress to set a national standard against the discriminatory use of genetic information.

The laws are needed. As the country - and the world - heads into an era when data about human genetics is likely to mushroom, the limits of that data as a predictor of human potential need to be clearly drawn.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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