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At-home Genetic Testing: Pandora’s Box of What?

In the current issue of TechReview, at-home genetic testing techniques are branded with the sign of Pandora. Interesting choice: a myth about a woman who opens a box, releasing all the ills of the world. She closes it just in…
March 10, 2005

In the current issue of TechReview, at-home genetic testing techniques are branded with the sign of Pandora. Interesting choice: a myth about a woman who opens a box, releasing all the ills of the world. She closes it just in time to retain Hope at the end of a golden age.

Exactly what ills might be released by at-home genetic testing? Some sources in the article argue that the primary risk is bad interpretation of test results from corporate doctors who have no real contact with the client. This fear seems reasonable.

I would suggest, however, that the deeper fear engendered by this new technology is a displacement of medical authority from doctor to client and from doctor to business. Every time a new technology–particularly tech derived from the map of the human genome, once the ultimate mystery-box–displaces an older authority, there comes a ripping sound: another trusted institution mechanized and abstracted. This can be hard to countenance in the face of contemporary medical trends. How many of us can say we’ve ever really had a family doctor? And now the doctor works for EvilGeneCorp, or so the fear might dictate.

At the same time, the client–who may or may not become a patient, depending on the test results–gains knowledge of predispositions to deadly diseases such as breast cancer. (Pandora might need a mammogram, and the test might encourage her to get one.) The client determines the next course of action. This is not a traditional Hippocratic situation, or even a scene from an HMO. It is no longer clear, in such a world, whose responsibility it is to make the happy ending.

What to do after the doctor is displaced? Will Pandora take an oath not to harm herself? Will corporations also swear by the powers of healing? Myth isn’t telling, but there may be Hope in the old box yet.

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