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Feature

Strands of DNA in front of the word "millennium"

One of the key issues facing society in this millennium is what to do with the genetic information we uncover.

Germane to the genome

Lecturer to discuss dilemmas posed by genetic information

By Deane Morrison

Published on February 24, 2005

A young man stands accused of a violent act. In his defense, he claims he was abused as a child and that he has a genetic condition that research has strongly linked to a predisposition to violence, especially when coupled with childhood abuse. What's a jury--and society--to do?

This is the kind of dilemma we all face as advances in genome research allow us to sort people according to their probable future health and behavior. Ellen Wright Clayton, a professor at Vanderbilt University, will tackle these issues at 11:30 a.m. Friday, February 25, in a talk, "Over-Reading the Human Genome: The Threat to Privacy, Employment, Group Identity, and Responsibility," in the Mississippi Room of Coffman Union on the Twin Cities campus.

Contrary to the nightmare world of the movie "Gattaca," in which genetic tests were used as absolute arbiters of people's employment opportunities, a clear genetic profile can have messy implications. Society has a choice about how to deal with genetic information, and there's no getting around it.

The young man mentioned above is not entirely hypothetical. Some people are born with low levels of an enzyme known as MAO-A, and evidence suggests that this condition predisposes one to violence. Children with low MAO-A levels, if abused, have worse outcomes as adults than others, said Clayton in an interview.

"So, if children [with low MAO-A] are abused, are you quicker to take them out of the house?" she said. "If levels are high, do you leave them alone?"

The point is that while genetic science can reveal a person's predilections, it is value-neutral. It does nothing to help society decide what to do with the information. Courts, legislative bodies, and workers on the ground still have to grapple with hard decisions.

Questions like the one about the violent offender are parallel to questions about workplace discrimination, said Clayton.

"For example, you can predict that having women in the workplace will be costly because of child bearing," she said. "But we've decided that's a cost society has to bear. We've enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act, which shows that the vision of the [public] good is complicated."

She also raises the issue of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. It required employers to hire people with disabilities if they could do the work with reasonable accommodations, she said.

"But under Bush, the executive branch added that future health care costs could be taken into account," Clayton explained. She cited a Supreme Court case involving a man with hepatitis C, a liver disease, who had worked around refineries and was applying for maintenance work with Chevron, for which he was well qualified. In the case, which was decided in 2002, the court upheld a regulation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which allowed companies to refuse to hire a person who would "pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals" or to himself or herself, according to the Center for an Accessible Society's Web site. Chevron claimed the man would suffer further liver damage from working at maintenance jobs around a refinery.

"Chevron didn't want to hire him because his medicines and medical leaves would cost too much," said Clayton. "It's unfortunate the Supreme Court eviscerated ADA [by this case]."

Contrary to the nightmare world of the movie Gattaca, in which genetic tests were used as absolute arbiters of people's employment opportunities, a clear genetic profile can have messy implications. Society has a choice about how to deal with genetic information, and there's no getting around it.

"Despite messages about genetic determinism, we do have input in how to deal with it," she said. "I believe we have a responsibility to say, once we find genetic variation, what do we do?"

In her talk, Clayton will also address efforts to determine race through genomics. There is no genetic variance in the population that correlates one-on-one with race, but, she said, some forensic groups have claimed they can detect race through DNA tests. Clayton will discuss current activity in genome research and forensics, cognizant of the dangers in declaring a perpetrator belongs to a certain race based on shaky DNA evidence. Certain genetic patterns may be more frequent in certain races, but the correlation is statistical, not absolute, she said.

"The strategy I suggest is to be really clear about getting the science right," said Clayton.

Clayton is the Rosalind E. Franklin Professor and director of the Center for Genetics and Health Policy, professor of pediatrics, and professor of law at Vanderbilt. Her talk is the Deinard Memorial Lecture on Law and Medicine, and it is sponsored by the University's Joint Degree Program in Law, Health, and the Life Sciences and the Center for Bioethics.

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