Issue of Genetic Information and Insurance Companies

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08/02/20 Sciences Reference this

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“THIS HOUSE BELIEVES THAT INSURANCE COMPANIES SHOULD NOT GET ACCESS TO HUMAN DNA SEQUENCES”

INTRODUCTION

You take a look around you and you see a huge amount of genetic variation between individuals. This is because we all consist of genes coding for different characteristics. Such sequences in our genes can be collected to form what is known as a ‘DNA database’; but, what is a database? According to Wikipedia (2018), a DNA database consists of DNA profiles arranged in a database, useful in a variety of fields, e.g. in genetic testing. Their versatility allows them to be a useful component in solving some of the major issues faced worldwide, such as overcoming epidemics, as well as tackling high crime rates. Anderson et al., (2015), states that the first DNA sequencing process had arisen from the works of Fred Sanger in 1977. This process utilised the polymerase chain reaction, which enabled the replication of DNA fragments of varied lengths- a property which was useful for gel electrophoresis. In turn, these methods meant that sequences of bases in one length of DNA could be identified, leading to whole genome sequencing (ibid). However, surrounding the use of DNA databases, enters controversy. Some may claim that DNA databases are powerful tools of evidence in convicting an individual as guilty of a crime. Contrastingly, others regard DNA databases as a threat to our privacy. There may arise issues of genetic discrimination in relation to insurance companies and employment. Individuals may be disadvantaged, having to pay higher premiums for protection against this high risk of data abuse. Therefore, this house believes that insurance companies must not gain access to human DNA sequences, due to the lack of serious measures being taken to protect human rights at this moment in time.

THE USE OF PCR & GEL ELECTROPHORESIS ALLOWS FOR DNA DATABASES TO BE PRODUCED

Cost-effective methods of sequencing, means that DNA databases are becoming more practical. Khan Academy, (2018) described the polymerase chain reaction as a technique that is used to amplify DNA, which can then be separated into fragments via gel electrophoresis. Gel electrophoresis is based on the principle that smaller fragments migrate towards the positive electrode at a faster pace than larger fragments (ibid). These methods are subsequent to ‘Sanger sequencing’, invented by Frederick Sanger in 1977 (Nature, 2014). The low error rate and ability to sequence long pieces of DNA is prominent to Sanger sequencing, however, it’s slower pace and high cost when compared to modern sequencing techniques labels it as an unsuitable sequencing technique (ibid). Biotechnology, (2018) demonstrates that the price of sequencing a genome has decreased to 10,000 dollars in recent years due to new sequencing techniques. Metzker (2010) writes that next-generation sequencing means that up to one billion short reads per run can be formed, which is useful in a series of various situations.

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With this advance, comes popularity, with which comes demand. This means that insurance companies would make it a common policy to ask for DNA databases when assessing individuals. However, we believe that DNA databases should not act as defining factors for an individual- you are not merely defined by the genes you possess. Against this, one would argue that if you possess a gene for a disease, you are susceptible to it- thus, genes are a defining factor. Deciding to purchase insurance, based on genetic results could have harmful effects on insurance companies as they are not aware of the genotypes of their consumers. This can be seen as unfair and may lead insurance companies into bankruptcy. The bankruptcy of many insurance companies would not be pleasurable for the majority, which goes against the principle of utility (the idea that the morality of an action is determined by the amount of pleasure produced) and therefore, may not be perceived as ethical. Thus, it can be assumed that the rights of insurers are equal to human rights- insurance companies have reason to gain access to DNA sequences.

THE HUMAN GENOME PROJECT AIMED TO DEMONSTRATE THE SEQUENCE OF 3 BILLION DNA BASE PAIRS THAT MAKE UP THE HUMAN GENOME

Anderson et al., (2015) defined the genome as all of the genes that make up an organism. The human genome project was established in 1990, whereby progress in deciphering the whole human genome was very rapid. Identification of the sequence of genes in chromosome number 22 in the year 1999, meant that it was the first chromosome to be fully sequenced. The HGP published the sequence online and it became a resource available to scientists worldwide. As a result, these sequences have allowed for the determination of genes related to diseases, e.g. the BCRA2 gene, which codes for breast cancer. The sequencing of the human genome has made it possible to locate these genes and screen them for mutations (ibid).

Despite the benefits of genome sequencing, there remains a question of who can gain authority over our DNA sequences. Anderson et al., (2015) claim that it would not be acceptable for insurers to gain access to these resources, in fears of genetic discrimination. Individuals susceptible to a disease may face paying higher premiums and could be denied all types of cover, even though their possession of the gene does not necessarily mean that they will develop the condition (ibid).  On the other hand, without genome sequencing and hence, the national DNA database, we would not be able to identify criminals. Yourgenome.org (2015), states that it would not make sense to say that national DNA databases do not prioritise human rights, as we all have the right to reside in a crime-free society. Furthermore, laws such as GINA amended in America during 2009, can be made to prevent genetic discrimination (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2015). Therefore, whether DNA databases harm an individual’s human rights depends on how this information is handled and under which authority it remains. In this way, we adopt a more situationist approach- insurers should not have access to our DNA databases as they do not value human rights as much as law enforcement companies do.

DNA DATABASES ALLOW US TO IDENTIFY AN INDIVIDUAL’S SUSCEPTIBILITY TO A DISEASE

The work of the HGP means for an early detection of disease in an individual, whereby treatments for these diseases can be modified to suit a particular patient, causing them to be more effective. MedicineNet (2016) explains that susceptibility to a disease can be caused by single gene inheritance, where there are changes to a single gene. Disorders such as hemochromatosis are caused by single gene inheritance (ibid). McKie, (2018) wrote an article in The Guardian about a child by the name of Sam Ward who, shortly after he was born, was unable to see. Screening Sam and his parents’ genes led to the discovery of a mutant Grin-1 gene. Sam’s parents were reassured that the fault was caused by mutation and not inheritance, which meant it was unlikely for the gene to be transmitted through generations. Research has found possible drugs that could treat the disorder (ibid). This would not have been possible without a DNA database.

However, access to DNA sequences such as Sam’s, belonging to thousands by consumer companies, e.g. 23andMe, can be calculated to be of high risk. Rosenbaum (2018) claimed that the privacy policy or situation of the company may change producing unintended consequences, having severe repercussions on an individual’s privacy. The genetic data could be hacked and used for various purposes which consumers would be unaware of.  Contrastingly, Dr. Robert Green, a knowledgeable figure involved in genomic research, argues that this breach of information would not be as useful as one would imagine, even if it was linked to individuals on a mass scale (Rogers, 2016). Nonetheless, this can be regarded as an understatement, as access to such data by unauthoritative establishments could lead to manipulation for use in custodial battles and court cases. Moreover, our DNA is valuable- it should not be accessed by insurance companies, where risk of compromise is high.

THE USE OF DNA DATABASES CAN BE JUSTIFIED IN MEDICAL AND FORENSIC CIRCUMSTANCES

It could be argued that the use of DNA databases is justified in forensic circumstances, but the same argument cannot be applied for insurance companies. The most common use of DNA databases in forensics is known as DNA fingerprinting, which analyses an individual’s genome, forming “a pattern unique to the individual” (Yourgenome.org, 2018). PCR and gel electrophoresis of DNA samples lead to the production of a series of ‘bands’ visible under UV light. A comparison of the DNA samples discovered at crime scenes with the DNA sequences of potential suspects can aid in convicting criminal offenders as guilty (Image 1).

Image 1

The American Economic Journal published a study in 2017, which showed that DNA profiles are more cost-effective than other methods of identifying criminals and that retaining records of them reduces crime rates (Doleac, 2017). This justifies the use of DNA databases in forensic circumstances as it prevents a growth in crime rates.

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However, it is difficult to justify the use of these databases by insurance companies, since they may companies may take advantage of this information, with an intent of monetary gain. On the other hand, the cost effectiveness of DNA profiling for use in forensics can be recognised as a major issue, due to the high economic cost associated with it. In a forensic environment, a widespread database can be very advantageous; yet, it would also be time-consuming to gather a suitable sample. The idea that the use of DNA databases in forensics is no more justified than the use of DNA databases by insurance companies can be ethically determined. Individuals with no relation to the crime will be subjected to analysis and this is no better than insurance companies using this information with the sole intent of monetary gain. Alternatively, the Combined Data Index System (CODIS) do not disclose certain data, e.g. criminal history information and social security numbers, which can be seen as ethical (S. Panneerchelvam et al., 2003). CODIS also allies with ‘The Population File’ whose DNA profiles remain anonymous. A system resembling this association which prioritises such values whilst ensuring a moral use of personal data justifies the use of DNA databases in forensic circumstances, rather than for insurance purposes.

CONCLUSION

The National Human Genome Research Institute, (2015) states that genetic discrimination occurs when individuals are not treated equally due to having different predispositions to diseases based on their genome. This remains an issue when it comes to employment and insurance companies assessing individuals, questioning the ethics of these establishments gaining access to DNA databases. Wilkinson et al., (2017) describe how an adoption of the attitude outlined by the utilitarian ethical system would encourage the use of DNA databases by insurance companies, since this produces happiness for the majority. Theoretically, Joseph Fletcher (founder of situation ethics) would condemn these actions, since they undermine the key principle of ‘Agape’ (‘love’) (ibid). Allowing access to DNA databases provides a route of entry to personal information, compromising an individual’s privacy; to a situationist, this is not the most loving thing to do and therefore, this argument cannot be justified. However, as stated previously, the use of DNA databases for forensic and medical purposes can be sufficiently justified, as this prioritises the principle of Agape. Therefore, this house adopts a more situationist view rather than a utilitarian perspective. We believe that insurance companies must not gain access to human DNA sequences, due to the lack of serious measures being taken to protect human rights at this moment in time.

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