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IBM once set one of its Linux commercials on a basketball court. But other than that, the worlds of Big Blue and professional basketball have rarely crossed lanes. This month, though, they were linked by what promises to become one of the most volatile workplace issues of the next decade: genetic testing.

After it was revealed that Chicago Bulls star center Eddie Curry had a heart arrhythmia, the Bulls said he’d have to take a DNA test before the organization would tender a new contract. They were concerned about the effects of his condition on his health and the team.

Perhaps fearing that a DNA test would make him unemployable with any NBA team, Curry declined to submit to a test, and instead took his chances as a free agent. He got traded to the New York Knicks.

“This is far bigger than just the sports world,” Curry’s lawyer, Alan Milstein, commented when the Bulls first demanded the DNA test, according to a report on ESPN.com.

How right he was. On October 10, IBM Chairman Sam Palmisano signed a revision of the company’s equal opportunity policy specifying that IBM would not “use genetic information in its employment decisions.” In doing so, Big Blue became the first major corporation to proactively take this position. “Business activities such as hiring, promotion and compensation of employees will be conducted without regard to a person’s genetics,” wrote Palmisano in a letter to employees announcing the change.

With advances in genome research continuing at a rapid pace, the long-feared implications of genetic testing are finally coming to the fore. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Act (H.R.1227), a bill that would make policies such as IBM’s federal law, is currently in committee in the House of Representatives, after sailing through the Senate 98-0.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke before a House committee on the issue last week. Gingrich is pushing for all Americans to have electronic health records by 2006, but he also sees genetic privacy as a key component of that goal.

After passing the U.S. Senate so handily, it might seem the bill would be a lock in the House. But it’s a faulty assumption: versions of the legislation have been circulating on Capitol Hill for eight years with no passage.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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