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Editorial: Genetic legislation

Canadian voters have indicated, fairly consistently, that they like their economies stable and their health care socialized. As of late, they reward politicians who espouse values based on social fairness and cultural inclusivity, and punish those who come across as small-minded or protectionist.

Witness the ongoing media coverage Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has experienced that one can only liken to a 10-month honeymoon that shows no sign of stopping.

Which is why a law espousing to stop genetic discrimination sounds like an unqualified success. Who likes discrimination? Nobody. And with the rapidly changing scientific landscape, what’s not to like about a law that would punish those who try to force others to undergo a genetic test as part of a contract or settlement? The bill spells out stiff consequences — potentially causing those convicted to pay an up-to-$1-million fine or serve five years in prison. For Canadian laypersons unfamiliar with the term genetic discrimination, it all sounds very science fiction-friendly. 

The debate is, then, how prevalent a spectre genetic discrimination currently is. According to one study on genetic discrimination in Canada, related to those who might develop Huntington’s disease, research indicated “that discrimination is most often reported in insurance, family and social settings.”

“In the study, 40 per cent of respondents to a national survey of individuals at risk of developing Huntington’s disease — individuals with no symptoms — reported having experienced discrimination,” said a UBC news release from 2009, on the study.

Seven years later, it appears ideas around genetic discrimination are still hitting the mainstream, as well as potential (or negligible) implications on Canadians’ privacy rights. Lawyers everywhere would do well to watch what happens legislation-wise, and ask critical questions about how this type of discrimination may manifest. Legal safeguards are well and good, but critical discussion around the bill’s implications are most necessary, too.

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