In May, Bill S-201 passed to the second reading stage in the House of Commons. This bill, designed to prevent genetic discrimination, is particularly exigent because of recent advances in biomedical technology.

The bill would make it illegal for any person to require an individual to take or disclose the results of a genetic test. Without legislation on this issue, Canadians are currently susceptible to the possibility of being discriminated against on the basis of information that could be revealed by a genetic test.

While Bill S-201 is a necessary step to protect Canadians from this type of discrimination, Canada’s insurance industry might have reason to oppose it. Since they are a large part of the Canadian economy, they could possibly have a say in the outcome of the proceedings.

Some argue that insurance companies have a right to know the results of these tests, since they insure against health issues. They argue that they should be able to charge higher premiums if an insurance recipient is at higher risk for illness or disease.

There are currently over 33,000 genetic tests for thousands of conditions. While some of these tests can predict the chance of an individual developing a disease, none can predict when the symptoms will set in or their severity.

Often, even major tests, such as a breast cancer screening, cannot predict whether one is certain to develop a disease; they can only show whether one is predisposed to or has a greater likelihood of developing the disease. Further, our genetic information is the base code for our bodies in their entirety. It is us at our most basic level, and this could be reason enough for us to seek privacy in regards to our own genetic information.

Genetic testing is an important measure to understand the risks one faces and, subsequently, make decisions to reduce these risks. As an example, Angelina Jolie took a test after her mother succumbed to breast cancer and found that she too carried the gene predisposing her to it. She then decided to undergo preventative surgery, reducing her risk of contracting cancer from about 87 per cent down to 5 per cent. Following suit, women began to take more genetic tests,  becoming a trend that is now dubbed the “Angelina Jolie effect.”

Nevertheless, fear of genetic discrimination has caused a decline in the number of people who wish to take this test.

For these reasons, many believe it is imperative that the bill should pass. The sponsor for the bill, MP Rob Oliphant of the Don Valley West riding, is of the same view, calling it a ‘three-legged stool.’ Oliphant believes if any of the pieces of the legislation are removed,  it would lose its integrity.

“Our job as federal legislators is to put into place laws that will protect Canadians. We have the criminal law power to do that work. That criminal law will state what is unacceptable conduct, and then prohibit that conduct. That is what Canadians expect us to do on their behalf,” he said.

Overall, this bill seems to be a step in the right direction. Our DNA defines us, containing our past, present, and future within it. For that reason, we have a right to the privacy that Bill S-201 seeks to protect.

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