U.K. Genetic Test Ban Controversy Continues

The British government’s Human Genetics Commission called for a three-year ban on the use by insurers of genetic test results in screening applicants for insurance. The proposed period is a year longer than a parliamentary committee has recommended, and would replace the voluntary pledge to limit the use of such tests currently being observed by members of The Association of British Insurers.

On Monday Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who heads the Commission, accused Norwich Union (part of CGNU) of using a genetic screening for breast cancer which had not been approved by the Genetics and Insurance Committee, the organization set up to review genetic tests for reliability for insurance purposes. So far it has approved only one genetic test, for Huntington’s Chorea.

Lady Kennedy accused the industry of bad faith and of breaking their word not to use unapproved tests. ABI Director General Mary Francis responded in a letter that the industry recognized the public’s concern over the issue and would continue to work with government bodies to develop applicable standards. She also offered a compromise.

“The (industry’s) existing Code includes a moratorium on the use of test results in respect of life insurance linked to a mortgage of up to £100,000 [$145,000],” Francis wrote. “Following very careful consideration within the industry, we propose to extend this moratorium to cover all classes of insurance up to £300,000 [$435,000]. This will have the effect of excluding genetic test results from underwriting other than for a very small number of high value policies.”

An outright legal ban on the use of genetic testing would require parliamentary legislation. The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, which is heading for an election within the next two months, hasn’t indicated whether it would take this step. The ABI obviously hopes that the industry can continue to work within the voluntary system, but it remains to be seen whether Lady Kennedy and her colleagues on the HGC are prepared to accept the compromise.