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Bioethicists and King Knut

Knut (or Canute) was told by his courtiers that he was so powerful, even the sea would obey him, which he was easily able to disprove, of course. Over the centuries, the story was mis-told to become that of a king who thought he was so so powerful that he could order the tide not to come in.

Listening to a radio discussion on bioethics reminded me of the story of Knut. According to Professor Donald Evans, a leading academic bio-ethicist, the imminent advent of super-cheap personal genome mapping and DNA analysis could give rise to several undesirable possibilities, such as:
  • Insurance companies offering cheaper health and life cover to people with lower risk DNA profiles, while those with higher risk profiles pay more or are not covered by insurance.
  • Potential parents screening eggs, sperm and embryos for more desired traits.
  • People establishing that their father is not their father (apparently several studies have found that 1 in 10 children were not fathered by their putative father).
Professor Evans propounded that the provision and application of such analyses should be very strictly controlled and in some cases (such as discriminating on health insurance) even banned, because the societal impacts are morally unacceptable. I suggest that such rules are only enforceable at a national level, and I can foresee there will be several countries with no objection to DNA analysis and its application. Modern communications, transportation and financial transactions will make access to such services easy. Look at the USA’s impotence in preventing online gambling on websites based in Britain.

Not everyone will want to avail themselves of DNA analysis (cheap paternity testing is available now and it’s a very minor concern for most people), but there are probably more than enough potential users to enable viable businesses, especially in health insurance. Insurers already discriminate on the basis of age, past conditions, occupation, weight and other indicators. Once health insurers start facing competitors from less-regulated countries, the pressure will build for controls to be relaxed, or more likely quietly ignored while the authorities look the other way.

The right to know has become deeply embedded in recent times. If society wants these services, society will get them. Bio-ethicists are properly raising the issue, but to suggest the potential problems can be prevented by regulation and prohibition is like telling the king that he can order the tide to not come in.

First posted September 1st, 2008