North Texas Daily

Genetic mapping could throw ethics off course

Genetic mapping could throw ethics off course

Genetic mapping could throw ethics off course
June 18
13:46 2013

A few milliliters of spit can do a lot of things. It can turn a wad of paper into a projectile, it can transmit diseases, it can even land you in jail. But thanks to progress in modern medical technology, it now also has the power to reveal all the secrets of where a human being has come from – and where they are going.

Modern genetic mapping requires no needles, blood or discomfort but mailing in a kit containing a vial of saliva. From this alone, DNA can be extracted and amplified, giving scientists enough genetic material to carry out genotyping and allow the production of a unique genetic report for each participant. After only eight weeks, one simply logs in to an online account and has full access to a report containing a multitude of information regarding ancestry and health risks.

This process offers insights into the medical future of patients that are currently unparalleled. Ancestral predispositions are factored in to allow the confident estimation of the risk of someone developing serious diseases and medical disorders including type II diabetes, cystic fibrosis, breast cancer, and Tay-Sachs disease.

In addition to playing a proactive role in preventative medicine, the test can also deduce whether or not a specific person would be sensitive to particular drugs that may be used in the treatment or prevention of medical conditions. Finally, the results can even provide information on whether or not the offspring of the individual may be at risk.

Despite the advantages, gene mapping can be intimidating. The pioneering company in the field of home diagnostics, 23andMe, is clearly trying to attract customers by offering its services for $99, a price substantially reduced from the former cost of $999. But what they are essentially selling is a list of what diseases – 249 of them and counting – a person is likely to encounter in their lives. In other words, a guide to the likely quality and length of a person’s life.

Some may find that information empowering, an opportunity to try and avoid, or at least reduce the risks up ahead. But for those who find they are facing unavoidable, incurable or crippling diseases, and for those who cannot afford prevention and treatment, the information is more akin to a horrible threat that they can do little about. Many may find such information scary or traumatic – after all, a crystal ball making dire predictions about the future cannot be taken lightly when it’s based on hard science.

If genetic mapping has a position in the revolution of healthcare, there are numerous philosophical problems that must be addressed. Should genetic mapping ever become a standardized procedure for every newborn, would that strip the individual of their autonomy?

In a clinical setting, if a physician knows that their patient is a ticking time bomb and the patient does not want that knowledge, is the doctor breaching the Hippocratic Oath by sitting back and allowing harm to come to the patient?
Would insurance companies be entitled to either deny coverage to or excessively charge patients who have genes that suggest greater expenses?

One should thoroughly think through the existential ramifications when considering whether or not they wish to open this Pandora’s box of health.

Shari Esquenazi is a pre-psychology senior. She can be reached at

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