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Genetic guidelines

ai/pfd, dpa/AFPApril 24, 2009

The German Parliament has passed legislation to limit the genetic testing of humans. It bans secret paternity tests and severely restricts the use of genetic testing by employers and insurance companies.

three red cells on a slide seen through a microscope
Genetic testing will now be the exception rather than the ruleImage: AP

Health Minister Ulla Schmidt welcomed the new law as a crucial step in protecting the rights of patients. She said that after 10 years of discussions a legal framework had been put in place that would prevent the abuse of sensitive personal data.

Germany's Health Minister Ulla Schmidt
Health Minister Schmidt says the law is crucial to protect patientsImage: dpa

Genetic testing can be used to determine a person's disposition to develop certain illnesses such as cancer - information which in the hands of an employer or a health insurance company could easily lead to discrimination.

The new legislation defines under which circumstances an analysis of genetic material is legal. Now, testing can only be conducted with the patient's consent and after consultation with a doctor.

Medical tourism to find out who's the father?

Under the new law, paternity tests, for example, will be only legal if both the woman and man agree. Conducting a secret test can result in a fine of up to 5,000 euros.

Paternity tests during pregnancy will be only legal in cases of sexual abuse or rape. The German Medical Association however has warned that this might lead to medical tourism, with people trying to get genetic testing done abroad.

Scientist looking through a microscope
Who's the father? Clandestine testing will be illegalImage: AP

Employers will also be affected by the new law. They will not be able to demand a genetic test from their employees to check for illnesses or health problems. The only exceptions to the rule are if some specific jobs entail potential health risks - as can be the case in the chemical industry. Insurance companies may not demand that their clients undergo genetic testing - with exceptions only in cases in which the pay-out sum is very high.

Critics say there are too many exceptions

The need for a clear law on the issue had been expressed by all parties across the political spectrum - but the details of the new legislation have been controversial.

The opposition Green Party, the Free Democratic Party and the Left Party have all criticised the law for not going far enough and being open to too many loopholes.