Clinton Moves to Bar Federal Genetic Discrimination

By Bob Melvin | July 7, 2008 | 8:25 PM EDT

( - Responding to fears that advances in medical research could be abused by employers and others, President Clinton has barred federal agencies from discriminating against their employees on the basis of genetic tests.

Clinton's decision is being implemented by an executive order issued on Tuesday. It is based on legislation sponsored by Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) as well as Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY).

According to wire service reports, the bills in Congress would prohibit all employers from refusing to hire people at risk for health problems and insurers from refusing to sell them coverage.

Clinton announced his order during a speech on Tuesday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to the order, Clinton voiced his support for the pending bills. Supporters said they hoped Clinton's action on behalf of federal workers would focus attention on the need to take similar steps to protect private-sector employees.

"I think it sends a powerful message to the private sector about how they'll need to deal with the advances in science," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said.

Advances in genetic testing soon will allow doctors to predict the medical futures of their patients. That has raised concerns that such information could be used against those who are likely to suffer from cancer, diabetes, heart disease or other ailments.

Clinton was joined by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Shirley Malcolm, head of the directorate for education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Clinton has been speaking out on this particular issue for years. In his 1998 State of the Union speech, he declared that "we must see that science serves humanity, not the other way around. We must prevent the misuse of genetic tests to discriminate against any American," he said.

Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle's spokeswoman, said the Senate minority leader long has argued that "as more information about people's future health becomes available, it becomes important to protect that information. People shouldn't be discriminated against in employment or in other areas because of some genetic information that may be available on them," she said.

Clinton's order prohibits federal employers from requiring or requesting genetic tests as a condition of being hired or receiving benefits.

Further, federal employers would not be allowed to deny employees promotions or overseas posts because of a genetic predisposition for certain illness.

Under the order, obtaining or disclosing genetic information about employees or potential employees is banned except when necessary to provide medical treatment to employees, insure workplace health and safety or provide occupation and health researchers access to data.