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Ethical quandary makes genetic testing bill a hot topic

Democrats urged Republicans Wednesday to move quickly on legislation to protect workers from genetic discrimination, saying swift passage will help employees who fear losing their jobs or health insurance.

"Millions of Americans may be afraid to have genetic testing done because the results of those tests could put their health insurance in jeopardy," House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said.

"In a sense the genetic code is the key to who we are. No one ought to have a right to pick that lock."

Added Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, "In a sense the genetic code is the key to who we are. No one ought to have a right to pick that lock."

"Social policy must keep pace with science," said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the measure's House sponsor.

The bill Democrats are pushing would ban discrimination based on genetic information. They hope to get the 218 signatures necessary to force a vote in the House.

John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) questions the Democrats' motivation and says Republican leaders plan to push a version of the bill.

"Trying to make politics out of this seems to be rather curious," Feehery said. "We're going to do something on this issue." He did not elaborate on a GOP version but said Republicans wanted to attach it to patients' rights legislation.

In February, President Clinton issued an executive order that barred federal agencies from discriminating against employees on the basis of genetic tests.

"This is happening today in job sites all around the country," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a sponsor of the Senate bill. Individuals are being turned down. They are denied promotions. It is wrong."

Terri Seargent of Wilmington, N.C. said she had been employed since 1996 as an office manager, receiving many promotions and raises during her tenure. But she was fired in December, not long after beginning treatments — estimated to cost $48,000 a year — for Alpha-1, a genetic lung and liver disease that killed her brother in 1991.

"When I lost my job, I lost all my life and disability insurance," Seargent says. "In less than 10 minutes, we went from a secure middle-class family to financially scraping by."

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