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Canada passes genetic non-discrimination bill

13 March 2017
Appeared in BioNews 892

A bill outlawing genetic discrimination has been passed by Canada's House of Commons, adding genetic characteristics as a protected ground under their Human Rights Act.

Bill S-201 prevents companies from requiring employees to undergo genetic testing or to disclose results from such testing; it also bars insurance companies from compelling customers to undergo testing to receive coverage. A breach of the law would result in a fine of up to $1 million or five years in prison.

Responding to the legislation, Dr Nancy Cox, president of the American Society of Human Genetics, stated: 'At a time when genetic testing is increasingly being incorporated into clinical care and researchers are performing analyses of human genomes on an unprecedented scale, it is critical that the genetic information of patients and research participants alike is not misused.'

If approved by the Parliament of Canada, S-201 will help ensure that all Canadians can benefit from genetics-based clinical advances without fear of genetic discrimination.'

Canada is the only country in the G7 that currently has no legislation protecting individuals against genetic discrimination (although such legislation may be under threat in the US – reported elsewhere in BioNews 892). Despite this, the bill has faced much opposition. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the bill 'unconstitutional', arguing that it interferes with the provinces' rights to regulate the insurance industry.

Just one day after the House of Commons approved Bill S-201, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced her intentions to refer the legislation to the Supreme Court.

'We are contemplating and wanting to move forward with putting a reference forward on the constitutionality of the genetic non-discrimination act…. We, as the prime minister articulated yesterday, have serious concerns about the constitutionality of one of the parts of the bill,' she said.

The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA) has spoken out, claiming that the industry is 'extremely disappointed' with the bill. In an email to the Insurance and Investment Journal, Wendy Hope, vice-president of external relations for the CLHIA, expressed agreement with Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould and said her members believed that 'the bill would have unintended consequences, including on the affordability of insurance'.

The CLHIA emphasises that the industry already has an established code relating to genetic testing, in which they 'commit to not asking for genetic testing information for life insurance applications below $250,000. This ensures the middle class can continue to afford the protection they need.'  It is understood that the $250,000 threshold was introduced to prevent individuals from applying for large insurance policies after learning – through testing – of genetic conditions that they may be predisposed to.

The bill, which has passed both the Senate and the House of Commons, must now receive royal assent before it can become law. Some MPs have voiced their concerns that a court referral – as suggested by the justice minister - may only serve to delay the bill's enactment. Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who sponsored the bill in the Commons, has called on the government 'to enact this bill as soon as possible while awaiting the Supreme Court decision. Lives are at stake.'

ASHG applauds passage of Canadian Genetic Non-Discrimination Act
Eurekalert (press release) |  9 March 2017
Canada Passes Genetic Non-Discrimination Bill
GenomeWeb |  9 March 2017
Passage of genetic non-discrimination bill may impact affordability of insurance
Insurance & Investment Journal |  9 March 2017
Quebec cancer survivor welcomes Parliament vote to keep genetic test results private
CBC News |  9 March 2017
Wilson-Raybould wants Supreme Court advice on genetic non-discrimination bill
The Canadian Press |  9 March 2017
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