There are all kinds of legal and ethical implications that come with the advent of the completion of the Human Genome Project, which will map the entire human genome and give a specification to each gene. This information could be used in ways that are harmful or unfair. An insurance company that acquires this information about a potential person could deny them health coverage based on the high probability of that person contracting a disease later on in life. Or, a person could lose their job because the employer is worried that they have the gene for a certain type of terminal cancer and won't last more than another 10 years. Further, drug companies, having found out early on information regarding a person's probability for acquiring a mental disorder, could flood your mailbox and inbox with advertisements regarding new therapies they want to try out (1). The obvious and easy answer to prevent these cases would be to keep the information "private," but just like any other "private" information (credit card numbers, social security numbers, hospital records) there is always going to be a case in which information gets into the wrong hands. It would be so simple, it seems, for someone to get a strand of your hair or a sample of your saliva from a cup to then look up your genetic data in an online profile. And this would have huge consequences if this is information regarding the genes in your makeup - or, similarly, the map of your brain. Even if insurance and drug companies did use this information in this way, there is always the possibility that it could be outright wrong. Even if the Project is said to be 100% accurate, or likewise that brain scanners are said to be 100% accurate, people are always going to question human (or machine) ability to predict the future, basically. Just as colorful scans of the brain used in the courtroom are appealing to jury members, so too would easy-to-read genetic maps.
There is actually about 5% of the Project's funds that are devoted to looking into the social, legal and ethical problems that could potentially arise from such information (1). The committee's founders are devoted to predicting all of these problems and then coming up with potential solutions. Would we, as individuals, even want a map of our genetic makeup that will predict for us our future genetic disorders/diseases? Or on a lesser scale, our likelihood of getting wrinkles or white hair at a certain age? It would do away with the "fun" of not knowing - the surprise of what the future brings.
1. Raju Chebium
CNN Interactive Correspondent
2. Tim Williams
Science and Technology Division
26 July 2000