Mutant Discrimination: GINA, Genetics and How Professor Xavier is Breaking the Law

by jeeg 1. April 2013 21:27

Previous posts here at Law and the Multiverse have discussed the status of mutants under several of our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, including the applicability of constitutional protections afforded by the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th amendment and statutory protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

There remains, however, one key piece of important anti-discrimination legislation that has yet to be considered in evaluating the legal protections afforded mutants under the law: the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or GINA.

I. GINA and Mutant Genetics: A Primer.

GINA represents a historic achievement. Enacted in 2008 after 13 years of debate, many have called it the “first civil rights bill of the 21st century.” Five years later it remains the first and only piece of federal legislation to specifically address the use and effects of genetic information.

Broadly speaking, GINA is divided into two parts. Title I of GINA prohibits health insurers from using genetic information to deny coverage or to set premiums or payment rates. Title II prohibits employers from requesting genetic information or using genetic information in hiring, firing and other employment-related decisions.

GINA’s unique focus on genetic information makes the law of particular relevance to mutants. “Mutants,” as we now know thanks to decades of research by devoted and largely off-panel comic book scientists, are individuals who possess at least one mutated copy of the so-called “X-Gene.” The gene appears to promote the development of superhuman powers and abilities, typically post-puberty.

While much remains unknown about the X-Gene’s structure and function, scientists specializing in mutant genetics have isolated its protein product(s) as evidenced by the deployment of mutant suppression drugs in X-Men: The Last Stand (the drug in question is derived from the mutant Leech). From this we can extrapolate that the location of the X-Gene in the Homo sapiens genome is known and, importantly, that mutations within the gene can be identified through genotyping or even targeted sequencing of the X-Gene itself.

With the identification of the X-Gene and the subsequent decline in cost of genomic sequencing technology, there are a number of scenarios in which a genetic test to “diagnose” a mutant at an early stage, particularly before he or she has developed any superhuman (and frequently super-destructive) abilities, might be desirable. But in light of GINA’s passage, are such genetic tests legal?

II. Mutant Discrimination in a Post-GINA World.

We start with a pair of scenarios in which genetic testing for the X-Gene might be of interest.

First, a health insurer could require applicants to submit to testing in an attempt to screen in individuals with beneficial mutations (e.g., those resulting in unique healing abilities) or screen out individuals with X-Gene mutations capable of generating catastrophic levels of claims exposure (e.g., as a result of an at-times-uncontrollable ability to rearrange matter), thereby helping to more accurately project the insurer’s exposure.

Second, an employer might use the X-Gene test to gain valuable insight about a prospective hire. For instance, a research laboratory might use the X-Gene diagnostic test to double-check that the reserved but well-qualified physicist it is considering for an open position won’t demolish the lab – and everyone and everything within it – if an experiment goes awry.

Prior to GINA’s passage, testing in either scenario would have at least been arguably permissible, although various other anti-discrimination laws, including those discussed in previous posts, might have served as the basis for an effective challenge. Post-GINA, however, the analysis is crystal clear: both of the above examples of X-Gene screening are illegal.

The text of the statute itself offers no ambiguity:

  • A health insurer “...shall not request, require, or purchase genetic information for underwriting purposes.” (§ 101)
  • It is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire, or to discharge, any employee, or otherwise to discriminate against any employee with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment of the employee, because of genetic information with respect to the employee.” (§ 202)

 Although Congress did provide limited exceptions to the general prohibition on requesting and using genetic information in the insurance and employment contexts, none of the exceptions are targeted at mutants, tests specifically designed to test for X-Gene mutations or are otherwise applicable to the scenarios discussed above.

III. Professor Xavier and Pro-Mutant Genetic Discrimination

While GINA may operate to protect mutants from certain forms of genetic discrimination, we should not forget that the statute is crafted broadly and protects against the misuse of any individual’s genetic information. In other words, just as mutants are protected by GINA, so too are they bound by it.

Consider the case of Professor Xavier’s world-renowned school, variously referred to as “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters” and the “Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.”

While little is known of Xavier’s closely-guarded school, it appears to satisfy the definition of an employer subject to Title II of GINA. (GINA applies to all private employers with 15 or more employees. With roughly a dozen identified faculty members, and likely additional faculty members and administrative and support staff on the payroll, Xavier’s school likely crosses the 15-person threshold.)

Xavier’s school also has an unbroken track record of employing mutants as faculty. While it may seem logical and even desirable to employ mutants in a school dedicated to the education and training of mutants, GINA prohibits the use of genetic information in hiring and other job-related decisions without exception. Even in situations where genetic information might appear to be a legitimate criterion for assessing fitness to perform a particular job, GINA forbids its use by an employer.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that Xavier requires prospective faculty members to submit to a traditional genetic test as a condition of their application and/or hiring. In addition to his well-known psionic powers which allow him to identify mutants using only his mind, many or all of the individuals applying to work at the school have manifest mutant powers. Nevertheless, GINA is clear that genetic information, however acquired, may not be used “in regard to hiring, discharge, compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” 29 CFR § 1635.4. No matter how he comes by the information, if Xavier is indeed using genetic information in employment-related decisions, this would be a clear violation of GINA.

Since none of Xavier’s existing faculty members are likely to bring a discrimination claim, how might one arise? The most likely scenario: a gifted but non-mutant individual, perhaps one even possessed of other superpowers derived from, for example, an alien genesis or technological enhancements, seeks a position at Xavier’s school as an instructor but is turned away. Such an individual would be well-positioned to bring a successful genetic discrimination claim under GINA against Professor Xavier and his school. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title II of GINA, provides detailed instructions for filing just such a charge.

As with any new piece of legislation, it will take some time before GINA’s full implications for both mutants and humans become clear. Final regulations for Title II of GINA were published in 2010, but public examples of GINA-in-action remain few and far between, and illustrate the many uncertainties and difficulties of enforcement.  For example, given the EEOC’s difficulty subpoenaing documents from Nestle in a recent enforcement action, one can only imagine the considerable challenges that would await the Commission in attempting to gather the evidence needed to successfully establish a claim of discrimination under GINA.

Nonetheless, the law of GINA is clear, and the coming years may require the Commission and other regulatory bodies to overcome those challenges in order to appropriately enforce GINA both for and against the mutant population. Count on Law and the Multiverse and the Genomics Law Report to continue to keep you apprised of all the latest in GINA, mutants and genetic discrimination law.

Dan Vorhaus, Law and the Multiverse



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