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Swiss law 'could lead to genetic underclass'

9 July 2004
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 266

A pressure group based in Switzerland says that a new national law could lead to discrimination against people with genetic disorders, the British Medical Journal reports. In June 2004, the Swiss parliament approved legislation that would allow insurance companies limited access to genetic test results. The new measures were designed to tighten up laws on genetic testing and to 'fix boundaries' within which scientists are free to work, Justice Minister Christoph Blocher said at the time.

Under the new rules, insurance companies will be able to see the results of genetic tests already carried out, in cases where policy holders plan to take out life insurance policies worth more than 400,000 Swiss Francs (£180,000) or disability insurance more than 40,000 Swiss Francs (£18,000). According to Pascale Steck, of the Basler Appeal Against Gene Technology, letting insurance companies have access to such information would create a 'genetic underclass' of people who would find it difficult to get life insurance. 'This law opens the door to genetic discrimination, and there is a danger that once a precedent like this is set it can be expanded to the state health insurance companies and other areas', she said.

The law, which aims to prevent the abuse of genetic information by employers and insurers, also says that genetic testing should only be carried out with the individual's consent, and only if ordered by a doctor. The law has been passed by the Senate but must now be approved by the House of Representatives before it comes into force. It also covers paternity and prenatal testing, stating that genetic tests can only be carried out on fetuses for health reasons. The potential use of genetic test results by insurance companies has also triggered concerns in the UK. Partly in response to these fears, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) agreed to impose a five-year moratorium on the use of genetic test results, which is due to expire in November 2006. The ban followed a previous decision by the UK Department of Health's Genetics and Insurance Committee (GAIC) to allow insurers to use test results for the rare genetic condition Huntington's disease for life insurance.

In the US, the Senate approved the Genetic Information Non discrimination Act in October 2003, after seven years of negotiation. The proposed new federal legislation would ban all employers, public and private health insurance providers and employment training programs from making decisions based on someone's genetic information. However, the bill has since stalled in debates, and has yet to be voted on by the House of Representatives.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Insurers allowed limited access to genetic tests
Neue Zurcher Zeitung |  16 June 2004
Switzerland has opened door to genetic discrimination, say ethicists
British Medical Journal |  10 July 2004
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