Genetics can divide and conquer us

Welcome to a brave new world in which social workers may one day be
expected to double as gene police. Last week new health minister
John Reid announced that £50m would be spent to graft the
genetic revolution on to the NHS.

“Genetics promisesÉ interventions tailored to each person’s
genetic profiles,” Reid promised. He said the NHS would provide a
bulwark against the spectre of “a genetic superclass” of the well
and insurable and an underclass of the unwell and

“We recognise that developments in genetics will present new
ethical and social challenges. We need to be alert to the potential
adverse consequences,” he added.

Indeed we do. There are of course, pluses to come from this gene
revolution, for instance, matching prescriptions to the genetic
make-up of a patient, to avoid side-effects. An optimist might also
hope that an awareness of our genetic maps could force the
government to acknowledge the importance of a decent income and a
decent diet – even for the unemployed.

A pessimist, however, might note that a positive step for the
better off, often casts a negative shadow on more chaotic lives.

For instance, nowadays, “B” survives a heart attack, is given
tablets, told to lose weight and eat more healthily. Under the new
gene regime, an early genetic test tells “B”, who has no symptoms,
that he has a future risk of having a heart attack. His GP decrees
immediate lifestyle changes. But what if B is on benefits,
depressed and unwilling to make “lifestyle changes”? Will benefits
be docked, as they are for the work-shy? It’s not so much of a
fantasy – remember the recent brief debate on whether the obese
should be given treatment if they fail to lose weight?

George Monbiot, in Captive State, the Corporate Takeover of
, chillingly describes how the major pharmaceutical
companies have successfully poured billions into lobbying for a
European directive which has enabled them to patent individual
genes. A corporation which owns a gene can demand payment each time
its knowledge is used, say, to test for a type of breast cancer. We
could find ourselves in a position in which some information to
save lives will be so expensive it is rationed to those who are
judged “responsible”.

With huge profits to be made, and too few defending the rights of
the vulnerable, are we heading for the creation of John Reid’s
“genetic superclass” – albeit by a different route?

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