Testing for Brains

Posted by Pete Shanks January 19, 2011
Biopolitical Times

An article in the New York Times by John Tierney discussed two recent studies about Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) genetic tests, one published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the other in Health Economics. The studies basically show that people are curious about the data, but pay little attention to it. There was "no sign whatsoever" of lifestyle changes, said the lead author of the NEJM paper, though people told they were at higher risk for colon cancer did tend to schedule colonoscopies.

Tierney spins the studies to match his own libertarian leanings, naturally, calling those who want regulation "paternalists" and essentially arguing for the public's right to be confused. One of the experts he found to agree with this was the media-friendly Prof. Lee Silver. He's the fellow who made a big splash in the late 1990s advocating, under the rubric of prediction, a future with a genetic aristocracy served by a slave class, ("with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee"). Then he imagined for Time Magazine the "St Genevieve fertility clinic" that sells "organic enhancement" to people with "no fertility problems at all." Silver knows how to give a good quote. Unfortunately, even though he regards restrictions on DTC tests as "paternalism run amok," this is not one of them:

"It seems like a no-brainer," Dr. Silver says, "that any competent adult should be free to purchase an analysis of their own DNA as long as they have been informed in advance of what could potentially be revealed in the analysis. You should have access to information about your own genome without a permission slip from your doctor."

So, you don't need a "permission slip" but you do need to have been "informed in advance"? Oh, and you need to be "competent" as well as "adult." Not to mention being rich enough to "purchase" the analysis. Well, the bank can certify the check, and there are plenty of uncontroversial age restrictions, while competence might in this context mean "not actually committed to an institution." But where on earth does Tierney get off apparently endorsing the idea of being "informed in advance"? Sounds dangerously like regulation.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: