Brave New World Revisited

Tim Paluch

On Monday, scientists revealed the first description of the human genome. While racists cringed at evidence showing that surface variances in humans (skin color, eye color, hair color) are determined by genetic differences so minute as to be nearly non-existent, the big news was the amount of light shed on deadly illnesses. The results found that men’s genes are twice as likely as women’s to develop inheritable mutations, which means that men are a greater force in human evolution and are more likely to pass disease onto offspring.It is hard to believe the human race has the scientific ability to map out the entire human genetic code, but can’t yet develop cures for cancer or AIDS, develop alternative fuel sources or find a way to prevent tartar sauce from going bad.Nevertheless, the medical and scientific possibilities are endless with these new discoveries. And while treatments or cures are possibly decades away, scientists have finally put the book together. All they have to do now is learn how to read it.For those outside of the scientific community, there are reasons to worry about the results from genetic mapping. Research may make it possible to identify someone’s lifetime risk for cancer, heart disease and other diseases that occur because of mutations in the human genome.This opens the door for a whole new kind of discrimination in society to add to our already illustrious list of racial, age, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic discrimination.Genetic information could be used to discriminate in the workplace. Will an employer hire someone who has a high cancer risk? Will someone prone to heart disease be in the running for a promotion? Will insurance companies deny coverage to those who have genetic flaws? These are questions that must be answered before we jump for joy over these unbelievable scientific findings.Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed its first lawsuit challenging genetic testing in the workplace.Charged in the suit was Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, a company that has been conducting genetic testing on employees without their permission.The tests were run on employees who filed for workers compensation for carpal tunnel syndrome, an injury common to keyboard operators. There is currently legislation being introduced that would prevent insurance companies from requiring genetic testing and that would ban the use of testing information to deny coverage or increase prices.But there is more than that one problem that needs to be addressed with DNA research.Anyone who values personal privacy should be concerned that law enforcement agencies are garnering larger and larger amounts of the population’s DNA without implementing measures that would protect the privacy of citizens.All 50 states have enacted statutes authorizing state and local law-enforcement agencies to operate criminal DNA databases and to pool their DNA profiles into CODIS (Combined DNA Identification System), a national FBI-operated database.While most early laws target only convicted sexual felons, looking at the history of Social Security numbers, fingerprinting and drug testing, there will inevitably be a change from profiling only convicts to profiling suspects.Delaware is one example of this migration. The state requires submission of genetic samples for all who have committed crimes against children, which in Delaware includes selling tobacco to a minor.Twenty-three states require submission for certain misdemeanors. Seven more states have enacted legislation that requires DNA submission for any felony, which would include perjury, tax fraud, among other non-violent crimes. New York’s DNA submission laws target all convicted felons and class-A misdemeanants.DNA databanking laws are one reason the juvenile justice system, which is supposed to treat minors as a separate category of offenders than adults, is failing to protect the privacy of those who have served time in a juvenile home.The juvenile system is supposed to be one with rehabilitative policies. After a period of time, the juvenile’s criminal records are sealed or erased.But in over half of the states, DNA profiles collected from juveniles are not required by law to be removed from their databanks. One state, Arizona, even prohibits their removal.So, little Johnny Nogood, put in a JV home in his early teens for shoplifting, now has his profile in FBI databases his entire life. DNA profiling once occurred only within a laboratory or at a hospital. Now it can be found in the law enforcement realm, an area not known for its strong ethical stance.I am not saying we should scrap the whole genetic research thing. It has a laundry list of benefits, and an infinite amount of possibility. It is a reliable way to identify individuals, it can help rape victims find their assailants, it can help law enforcement find serial offenders, and it can be credited with a re-examination of the death penalty, especially with the exoneration of death row inmates found to be innocent because of DNA evidence.But there needs to be more federal regulations put in place to ensure that DNA technology does not become an unethical science. Statutes must be enacted that would keep that technology within the boundaries of medicine and would not infringe on the privacy of individuals. If it falls into the hands of third parties such as insurance companies and employers, the doors will be opened for discrimination.Tim Paluch is a junior in journalism and mass communication from Orland Park, Ill.