In the 1920s, the so-called science of Eugenics encouraged discrimination based on a person's heredity. At the time, this was merely racism disguising itself as science. But thanks to modern genetic medicine, today we know that more than just physical appearance is passed from one generation to another-a propensity for developing certain diseases also appears to be hereditary. And, as with the Eugenics of yesteryear, discrimination based on heredity is once again a possibility.
Because of the potential for genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment decisions, Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act in 2008. The Act focuses on two types of discrimination: attempts by health insurers to deny coverage to people who are genetically predisposed to certain diseases, and workplace discrimination, such as firing (or not hiring) someone based on a higher likelihood of contracting a disease.
Genetic tests are expected to become routine in the future, and all people have genetic anomalies of one kind or another. So while genetic testing offers great promise for identifying and treating people who are most susceptible to certain diseases, supporters of the law believe that people might be discouraged from getting genetic tests if they thought that they could later face discrimination based on the results.
Most of the provisions of the bill have taken effect over the last year or so. The New York Times reports that most of the 80 lawsuits filed under the new law have focused on employers who improperly released or obtained genetic information. But a recently filed lawsuit claims that a woman was fired following a preventative double mastectomy that she chose to undergo after learning that she had a genetic predisposition to breast cancer. The woman believes she was fired specifically because she informed her employer of her genetic risk for breast cancer, even though she took major steps to prevent it.
If you have questions about how the new law may protect you from insurance or employment discrimination, contact an experienced attorney to discuss your rights.