DNA privacy

April 23, 2001 11:00 pm

It used to be that if you had what the unscientifically inclined call bad genes, you might not make first-string on the football team, or youd be more likely to have a sneezing fit during haying season.

Today, some lawmakers worry the condition may prevent you from obtaining life insurance.

We suppose it was too much to hope that such paragons of medical progress as solving the mysteries of the gene would lead only to positive results curing deadly diseases, for example.

The issue of whether insurance companies can use genetic information specifically, DNA, which can help doctors predict your future risk of suffering from a variety of ailments isnt new at the state capitol in Salem.

In 1995 the Legislature passed the nations first law governing genetic privacy. It prohibits companies from using genetic information in underwriting health insurance policies, but doesnt affect other types of insurance.

Oregon law still allows insurers to ask you for genetic information and to use the data in deciding whether to cover you.

Opponents of the practice say that information is protected by the U.S. Constitutions Fourth Amendment barring unreasonable searches.

Most Oregon lawmakers seem to agree.

The Legislature is working on a package of bills that would extend the 1995 law to other types of insurance. The package, introduced by House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin and Rep. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, was co-sponsored by 53 of the 60 representatives including Greg Smith, R-Heppner, whose district includes Baker City and 24 of 30 state senators, including Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day.

No one should be blocked from access to the right to insurance based on potential future disease, Merkley told the House civil law subcommittee recently. To do so is to create a society where citizens are profoundly unequal from the moment of their birth.

Thats a concept Orwell might have based a novel on, but there may be more to Merkleys statement than hyperbole.

Theres a lot of information in genetic information these days. Your DNA can tell an expert much about you as well as your family, and according to HB 2917, that data is uniquely private and personal information that generally should not be collected, retained or disclosed without the individuals authorization.

That certainly sounds reasonable to us.

However, we urge the Legislature to be careful in drafting laws designed to preserve the privacy of our DNA.

There are, of course, legitimate questions insurance companies can ask potential policyholders. In general, though, these deal with voluntary actions it may be harder to get life insurance if you smoke, for example.

Simmons and Merkleys bill deals instead with factors beyond any persons control.

And we agree with the lawmakers that insurers should not be allowed to withhold coverage from a person whose molecules suggest an inflated risk of, say, cancer.