Questions Without Answers: The Legal Frontier of Genomic Mapping

  • E-mail E-mail
  • Google+
  • Submit to Reddit Reddit

When Professor John Conley began his presentation on the ethical, moral, and legal implications of genomic mapping, he made one thing explicitly clear: there were not going to be a lot of answers in the following hour. Throughout the presentation he proved himself to be right by showing that frontier of genomic mapping just has not developed enough to answer many of the questions that it raises. However, the questions that Professor Conley did raise were quite thought-provoking. One in particular stood out: why can we not apply existing legal frameworks in the medical field to the emerging practice of diagnosis by genomic mapping?

The answer can be as simple or as complex as the person answering the question wants it to be. Put simply, this practice is different from other medical diagnosis and is still in its infancy. As a result, too many unknowns exist in regards to the ethical, legal, and moral repercussions. A more complex answer to this question would outline hundreds of concerns about a practice that does not quite seem to fit into centuries-old legal and medical doctrines.

The most discussed issue was the concern over how the information is used. This mostly stems from the fact that many different groups and individuals have conflicting concerns over how the data should, or should not, be used. It could be argued that the individuals themselves should not be privy to their own genomic data. How would knowing with near certainty one’s genetic predisposition to a variety of serious diseases affect the actions of the person? Would negative results encourage hypochondria at every cough and sniffle? Or, as Professor Conley put it, would the individual choose the McDonald’s and vodka diet? Questions such as these cannot be answered at the legal level but only as a psychological issue, further indicating the complexity of the situation. Additionally, how the information is used necessarily involves individuals other than the patient, and the answers are no more simple there. For example, how and to what extent is a doctor to inform an individual of negative results? Can insurance companies use these genetic predispositions in their premium considerations?

These questions over the use of genomic data are just a taste of the uncertainties swirling around the debate over genetic mapping. While these particular questions of use may have no easy answer, they do serve the purpose of answering the ultimate question posed here: we cannot apply the existing legal frameworks governing other medical issues because there are simply too many questions around the issue of genetic mapping. These questions indicate a level of uncertainty that must be resolved before an archaic system of law can be applied to a technology that was not anticipated at the time of the law’s inception. The debate must continue on these issues and questions must be answered if the proper legal principles are going to be applied to this emerging medical practice.


Posted by David G. Russell on Mon. March 25, 2013 9:19 PM
Categories: Medical Markets, Symposium

Comments for this post are now closed.

UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106


If you are seeing this, you are either using a non-graphical browser or Netscape 4.x (4.7, 4.8, etc.) and this page appears very plain. If you are using a 4.x version of Netscape, this site is fully functional but lacks styles and optimizations available in other browsers. For full functionality, please upgrade your browser to the latest version of Internet Explorer or Firefox.