Genetic Screening for Disorders - Ethics Study Begun in UK

by Ginny and John Dover

The Reuters News Service and the Pennsylvania News both report that a large scale public study is to begin concerning the ethics of genetic testing on various disorders including mental illness such as schizophrenia and depression. Current prenatal tests include screenings for most diseases caused by a single gene, such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. Other diseases such as Huntington's chorea, schizophrenia, and depression have genes which can indicate risk factors in these diseases. In Britain, pregnant women are routinely screened and can abort fetuses which show evidence of Down's syndrome.

Input from doctors, lawyers, teachers, geneticists, and other experts is being solicited by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to study this issue. Input from the public is welcomed either through the mail or through its web site. The study is being chaired by Dr. Fiona Caldicott, who is a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Although the exact link between mental illness and genetics is still not firmly established, the fact that genetics seems to play at least a partial role in their development means that ethical questions and concerns related to genetic screening are close at hand. For example, suppose a woman chooses to go ahead with a pregnancy in which a genetic risk of schizophrenia has been established. Suppose further that twenty years later, the child develops schizophrenia. Would that mother be at risk for a law suit from her child? Would health insurers and would-be spouses have a legal right to the information derived from such screenings? These are some of the questions and issues which the Nuffield Council will try to grapple with. It's report is expected out in late 1997.

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