IBM, one of the world's largest employers, on Tuesday endorsed federal legislation that would make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a person's genetic code.
Emerging breakthroughs in gene testing will enable doctors to tailor prescription medication to the individual and treat patients proactively against a predisposition to things like diabetes, breast cancer or heart disease.
A fear of discrimination, however, could prevent people from taking advantage of the gene testing technology. Some say that insurance companies might try to deny coverage to those with a predisposition to a costly illness, or employers could decide against hiring or promoting someone on the basis of his known genetic limitations.
The issue was discussed at a hearing on Tuesday held by the Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor on "Protecting Workers from Genetic Discrimination."
IBM, whose chief privacy officer spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing, wrote protection against genetic discrimination into its company policy in October 2005. Harriet Pearson, chief privacy officer, said that her company, which employs more than 330,000 people worldwide, has been the first to do this.
In an interview, Pearson said: "Overall, we understand the emergence and adoption of all this technology. Web 2.0, social networking, advanced solutions that allow the health care industry to share across the ecosystem. All of those advances raise questions of privacy."
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2007 would prohibit employers or insurance companies from making economic or coverage decisions based on genetic information. It would also give genetic information the same confidentiality protection as a medical record.
"What really caused consideration of this issue was triggered by the Human Genome Project," Pearson said. "We are always looking as to how we adjust our policy...Our policy prohibits discrimination based on race, gender. And sexual orientation wasn't always in there; we added that. And now we added genetics to that policy. It's a current issue on the radar screen. And one of the things I like about our company--I love--is that we do look around and take a position that we think makes sense," said Pearson.
The bill, which has been passed twice unanimously in the Senate, was reintroduced in the House on January 16 by Reps. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.). It has wide bipartisan support with 181 legislators signing on as co-sponsors. But variations of the bill have been brought up in the House before and have had one strong lobby group against it.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has consistently opposed and testified against past genetic antidiscrimination bills, contending that the Americans with Disabilities Act already offers enough protection. The group's position is that new legislation could lead to frivolous lawsuits, according to past testimony and statements on its Web site.