Canadian bill banning genetic discrimination runs into hurdles

by jeeg 23. February 2015 20:36


A Senate bill that would block businesses from obtaining details of someone’s genetic makeup has been watered down too much, its supporters charge.

The bill, S-201, was aimed at preventing employers, businesses and insurance companies from gaining access the results of genetic testing for any Canadian. Armed with such data, employers could use it to turn down a new hire, and insurance companies could reject applications based on genetic information.

Canada is the only G7 country that has no legal restrictions on access to the results of a genetic test. Such tests provide a window into the diseases a person is susceptible to or could pass on to their children.

On Thursday, the Conservative-dominated human rights committee in the Senate voted to remove eight of the 11 clauses in S-201 over concerns that these stepped on provincial jurisdiction by trying to regulate the insurance industry, including sections about offences and punishments.

The one substantial clause that was left in the bill prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee on the basis of genetic makeup.

Senate Liberal leader James Cowan, who spearheaded the bill, said no province directly or indirectly raised concerns with him that the original bill interfered with their jurisdiction.

“A federal bill to regulate the insurance industry would be … unconstitutional because it’s provincial,” he said. “But this is not a bill to regulate the insurance industry. This is a bill to prevent genetic discrimination.”

Conservative senators on the committee are “being selective in their views,” he said.

The Conservatives promised in the throne speech more than one year ago to bring in legislation to “prevent employers and insurance companies from discriminating against Canadians on the basis of genetic testing,” but the government has not yet done so. Given the amendments now made at the Senate committee, the government will have to find a way to craft a bill of its own that doesn’t tread on the same ground as Cowan’s rejected proposal.

It’s unlikely Cowan’s bill – even if its amended version were quickly approved by the Senate as a whole – would make it through the House of Commons before June when Parliament is expected to rise. It will not return until after the October federal election.

Sen. Linda Frum, the Conservative critic on the bill, said Tory senators would support a detailed study on the topic of genetic discrimination. She said the issue isn’t a partisan one, and that she and other Conservatives agree with Cowan that something needs to be done.

“This is an issue of technology being out ahead of us and one of the consequences that people are faced with today is they can get a test that can help them better manage their health … but there might be negative financial consequences and that is wrong,” Frum said.

S-201 had been before the Senate for two years. Several groups want to see discrimination and privacy legislation catch up with technology.

“It was a bill that would have shown the federal government was taking a leadership role,” said Bev Heim-Myers, chairwoman of the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness.

“All of the provinces are aware of (the bill),”said Heim-Myers, also the CEO of the Huntington Society of Canada. “The first question (provinces) ask is, ‘What are they doing at the federal level?’ I think it’s critically important for the federal level to set the example … and then the provinces will follow.”

Jordan Press, Ottawa Citizen



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