Genetic privacy measure gains

Legislature approves ban on using data in hiring and firing

March 23, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Heeding calls to protect personal privacy in an age of medical breakthroughs, the Maryland Senate unanimously approved legislation yesterday that would ban the use of genetic information in hiring and firing decisions.

The Senate vote follows House passage of an identical bill last month, ensuring that the bill will go to the governor.

A spokesman said Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign the bill.

Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, sponsor of the bill, said the measure's importance would increase as more tests for different genetically influenced conditions become available.

The Montgomery County Democrat said the legislation was strongly backed by the state's biotechnology industry, which is concentrated in her district. She said biotech leaders are concerned that as they develop tests for more conditions, people will be reluctant to use them.

"They're already having trouble getting people for clinical trials because people are afraid they'll lose their jobs," Forehand said.

The bill would bar employers from requiring job applicants to submit to genetic testing as a condition of employment. It also would prohibit the use of genetic information in making decisions about wages and benefits.

Karen Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland Law School, said the bill does not affect just sophisticated medical tests. She said it also would prohibit an employer from using any knowledge of a person's family medical history - for instance, that one's mother died of breast cancer - in employment decisions.

The General Assembly's action would bring Maryland into line with two dozen states that have adopted such laws.

Last year, Montgomery County became the nation's first county to enact such legislation.

Similar legislation, sponsored by Del. Michael Finifter, passed the House last year but died in a Senate committee without a vote. The Baltimore County Democrat's bill passed the House this year without opposition.

Maryland already has a law protecting people from genetic discrimination in health insurance decisions.

Rothenberg, who led a national study of the issue several years ago, said state-level genetic discrimination legislation is not a solution but is a move in the right direction.

"We really need a federal solution. You can't do things patchwork, state by state," Rothenberg said, adding that various proposals to bar genetic discrimination have been stalled in Congress for years.

Rothenberg said some employers already are using genetic tests to predict employees' health risks. But with increasingly sophisticated technology based on human genome research on the horizon, the practice could spread, she warned.

"They didn't map the human genome to discriminate. They mapped it to be able to learn more about disease so they could enhance the quality of our lives," she said.

Rothenberg said the bill's prospects were improved by news reports about Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway's being sued for allegedly testing two dozen employees for a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome without their knowledge.

"It was a good time to get the attention of the legislature," she said.

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