Genetic Mapping – Do You Want to Know?
The PBS Nova special “Cracking the Code” brought up a number of interesting possibilities about the future of DNA research. Most interesting to me was the special’s take on testing for specific genetic diseases and predispositions.
“Sometimes, there may be a test, but it might take twenty years, or fifty years. Fifty years to find a cure. So you could take the test, and you could learn that there is a disease coming your way, but you can’t do a thing about it. Do you still want to know?”
In the special, Lissa had breast cancer and her daughter Alanna had already found a lump at age 17. I had a similar experience this past winter break – my breast tumor, however, was found to be non-cancerous. Before this experience, I probably would not have wanted to know whether I was predisposed to genetically inherit diseases. However, after going through a multitude of tests, a biopsy, and finally surgery, my outlook has changed. I would feel more comfortable knowing, even if that did mean knowing that something may come up. I think it would be beneficial to know and possibly try to prevent whatever the test showed.
On the other hand, if you did know, this opens up insurance problems. Insurance companies are already allowed to turn down clients based on pre-existing conditions. If these types of tests were available, it seems to me that it might create more problems than solve them. Many people might be dropped from their insurance or declined for new insurance based on the results of a genetic test.
In the same vein, this could affect civil rights? For example, if a “gay gene” were to be discovered, could that lend itself to discrimination? Furthermore, if we could find and prevent certain diseases or alter genetic codes, then would it be possible to erase certain types of genes altogether? If we are not careful with the way these tests are instituted and used, it could lead to a terrifying version of discrimination that would be incredibly difficult to overcome.
So, though I would personally prefer to know if I was predisposed toward certain genetic diseases, the possibilities for how that information could be used is disturbing to me. These tests would have to be extremely confidential and it would take enormous legal influence to prevent abuses. While the search for cures is undoubtedly positive, the possibility of harm is something that will need to be addressed.