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Germany

Are You (Genetically) Up to the Job?

Germany's cabinet is due to discuss a law that would regulate limited genetic testing for employees in jobs like public transportation. Ethicists warn of dangerous terrain.

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A few short steps away from genetic discrimination

In a future where a person's chance at getting sick can be read from their genes, German politicians are discussing how much of that information a potential employer has a right to know.

Advocates say the bill, which is still in discussion, clearly regulates how far employers are allowed to go in determining how genetically fit someone is for a job. In jobs such as construction or public transportation, the law would allow for genetic testing for symptoms of color blindness among other things, according to a report in the newsmagazine Der Spiegel.

"It sets the conditions for the type of tests that can be conducted," Heinz Putzhammer, a representative of the Federation of German Trade Unions who worked on an early draft of the bill, told DW-WORLD. "I think we're on the right track because the limiting of genetic tests is in any case necessary in order to protect the person or the private sphere."

Discrimination just a few steps away

But some fear that track could nevertheless lead to genetic discrimination. Testing for symptoms of a disease is just a few short steps away from tests that would help employers determine whether to hire someone based on their chance of developing a genetic disease, says Sue Mayer, director of the UK organization GeneWatch.

"I think you have to put it together," Mayer told DW-WORLD. "I can't understand why you would want to do a genetic test for something symptomatic. It would raise the question 'is this leading the way to something?'"

In addition, scientists say the tests currently on the market to determine common genetic diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension, are

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unreliable and probably never will be completely accurate. The chance of developing a sickness, such as heart disease, has a little to do with the genes a person has inherited and a lot to do with outside factors, such as whether the person smokes or is overweight.

Tests nowhere near ready

"The main point with genetic tests is their interpretation. For most of the genetic tests it's hard to interpret results," Christian Kubisch, a geneticist at the University of Bonn, told DW-WORLD. "It's nearly ridiculous for a company to say we will test you for these diseases ... these kinds of tests are not good at the moment and probably never will be."

Many countries have taken the step of outlawing access to genetic tests for employers and insurers outright. Beginning with France and Norway in 1994, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria have passed laws that either severely limit or outright forbid the use of a person's genetic information for anything other than medical or scientific purposes.

German opposition politicians said they want a similar law. Parliamentarian Hubert Hüppe, the deputy chair of the Ethics and Law in Modern Medicine commission in the German Bundestag, said that the results of genetic tests, no matter what type, belong in no one's hands but the person tested.

Parliamentarian favors ban

"I'm in favor of a strict ban," Hüppe, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party, said in a DW-WORLD interview. "I'm against any other party being able to use that information."

The European Union weighed in on the discussion in the summer of 2003. In a 17-page opinion, the policy-initiating European Commission said a medical examination should only be conducted after an employer has decided on a job candidate.

Whether a person is fit for the job "can be fulfilled through medical examination but without performing genetic screening," wrote the 12-member European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies. "Thus, employers should not in general perform genetic screening nor ask employees to undergo tests."

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