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The Ethics of Genetic Screening in the Workplace

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2015


This paper clarifies the nature of genetic screening and morally evaluates using it to deny people employment. Four sets of variables determine screening’s ability to forecast disorder. The first two concern epistemological limitations: whether the gene itself has been located; whether knowledge of other family members is necessary. The latter two refer to genetic causality: whether other genes are needed; whether the gene causes the disorder or just a susceptibility to it.

Considerations of privacy and justice warrant restricting screening to job-specific disorders, without prejudice to the worker. Screening is more of an invasion of privacy than most “searches” because our very selves are disclosed; serious stigmatizing can result. It is unjust to penalize someone for a susceptibility to a disorder. It is also unjust to use the genetic knowledge and technology, developed with public monies allocated for public good, against members of the public.

Copyright © Society for Business Ethics 1993

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1 William, Pat Patterson, “Genetic Screening: How Much Should We Test Employees?,” Industry Week, June 1, 1987, pp. 4748Google Scholar.

2 Kathleen, McAuliffe, “Predicting Diseases,” U.S. Newsand World Report, May 25, 1987, p. 65Google Scholar.

3 Kathleen, Nolan and Sara, Swenson, “New Tools, New Dilemmas: Genetic Frontiers,” The Hastings Center Report, October/November, 1988, p. 65Google Scholar.

4 Gina, Kolati, “Genetic Screening Raises Questions For Employers and Insurers,” Research News, April 18, 1986, p. 317Google Scholar.

5 Marc, Lappe, “The Limits of Genetic Inquiry,” The Hastings Center Report, August, 1987, p. 7Google Scholar.

6 Ibid., p. 8.

7 Marc, Lappe, Genetic Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 61Google Scholar.

8 Madeleine, and Lenn, Goodman, “The Overselling of Genetic Anxiety,” The Hastings Center Report, October, 1982, p. 249Google Scholar. There was, however, fear of loss of marriage eligibility among many of the people tested. The Goodman’s also cite a study of sickle cell trait in Greece, where “possession of sickle cell trait had become a socially stigmatized status, introducing new anxieties into this rural community,” p. 26.

9 Thomas, Murray, “Warning: Screening Workers for Genetic Risk,” The Hastings Center Report, February, 1983Google Scholar.

10 Ibid., p. 8. Murray also includes the following: sound scientific basis linking anomaly to exposure to disease; risk should be very large and the disease should be severe and irreversible; and that the number of people excluded should be very small. This last stricture doesn’t strike me as all that convincing. It isn’t the number of people affected that makes a policy unjust. Although many suffering an injustice is worse than few suffering it, injustice done even to few is still injustice and weighs against the policy.