U.K. Parliament Seeks Ban on Genetic Testing

April 4, 2001

The dispute between Britain’s insurance industry and the government over the right to conduct and use genetic tests in assessing insurability and premium levels took a new turn on Wednesday when Parliament’s Select Committee on Science and Technology recommended that all such testing should be halted for two years.

The heart of the dispute is the fear that insurers will demand genetic testing results from applicants for life and health insurance, and may refuse coverage or raise premiums based on the test findings. As a result persons with genetic conditions could form a “genetic underclass.” Insurers point out that people without genetic anomalies will also benefit from lower insurance costs.

While calling for the moratorium, the Committee urged the insurance industry to meet with government representatives to work out a solution. That won’t be easy. The Association of British Insurers is reviewing the report, but its Director Mary Francis told the Financial Times that “We cannot lightly ignore information that tells us someone applying for insurance is at a significantly higher risk than the majority of policyholders.”

Although U.K. insurers cannot require that an applicant undergo genetic tests, they can request the results of any tests the person may have had. Currently only a handful of diseases have been singled out, including Huntington’s Chorea, early Alzheimer’s, and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Future work on the human genome, however, may significantly increase the ability of scientific testing to identify heightened probabilities or susceptibility to other kinds of disease.

The Committee’s action reflects the fact that so far there are no applicable standards as to the reliability of genetic tests, and no provisions establishing the extent to which they can be used.

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