Discrimination can occur anywhere, for example when you apply for a job or access goods and services, such as insurance. A person’s genetic makeup may be revealed by DNA testing or suggested based on his or her family’s medical history. As DNA testing increasingly identifies differences in the DNA sequence of individuals, and, potentially, the likelihood of an individual to develop or pass on a certain disease or condition, it becomes possible to discriminate based on genetic information.
What is meant by the term ‘genetic discrimination’?
Genetic discrimination is when a person, such as an employer, or company treats another person or their relatives differently on the basis of their actual or assumed genetic makeup. Though a person’s genetic makeup may be revealed by DNA testing, it can also be assumed based on his or her family’s medical history. Unlike other forms of discrimination, genetic discrimination can take place even if the person has not yet developed an illness or disability.
How does genetic discrimination occur?
When people talk about discrimination they usually mean behaviour that is perceived by the person affected as being unfair or unjust. In the case of genetic discrimination, this can arise because the person is denied something based on his actual or assumed genetic status, or that of his or her family member.
In Australia, existing National, State and Territory anti-discrimination laws protect individuals with a known disability from discrimination. However, there is currently no uniform protection for a person against genetic discrimination.
Unfair treatment in relationships or families due to a real, assumed or possible genetic risk status may also be perceived by the person affected as being discriminatory.
What is happening overseas?
There is a recognised need to put in place measures that are designed to reduce the risk of genetic discrimination, particularly as the benefits of the genetics revolution are increasingly being realised.
A number of international statements have also been issued, calling for countries to take steps to prohibit genetic discrimination.
Could my genetic information affect my health or life insurance?
In Australia a private health insurance company cannot charge a person a higher premium because of that person’s genetic information. This is because private health insurance is ‘community rated’ — that is, everyone pays the same premiums regardless of their personal or family health history or genetic test results. This is a situation similar to the UK and Canada.
On the other hand, genetic information about a person or their family can affect a person’s application for life insurance products, such as cover for death and income protection. These types of insurance are risk rated and genetic information, where available, can be taken into account in applications.
In Australia, the insurance industry has made a public statement that it will not require people to have DNA tests before taking out life insurance. However, it is an applicant’s responsibility to declare any known health information, about his or her self and genetic relatives, in insurance applications. Therefore, if you have already had a DNA test that has health implications, you are required to report this and the results in the insurance application.
The insurance industry is monitoring the development of genetic testing. The industry is free to change its position on genetic testing as it becomes more widely available, less expensive and provides more accurate personal information. However, all Australian insurance companies are bound by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 in ensuring the reasonable use of genetic information. This means, for example, that a life insurance company must be able to justify the use of genetic information to raise or lower the cost of insurance cover for an individual.