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Rigali letter on genetic discrimination hints at new politics of biotech

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

tIn last Friday’s “All Things Catholic” column, I argued that emerging biotech issues in the 21st century will shake up the current political calculus, with matters no longer breaking between a permissive left and a restrictive right. One consequence is that the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance will no longer imply a near-exclusive marriage of convenience with the cultural right.

tThis week brought an additional bit of evidence on point.

tOn Feb. 12, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia wrote to members of the House Education and Labor Committee, urging them to amend the “Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act,” H.R. 493. The measure would bar discrimination based on genetic makeup. Insurers and employers could not demand genetic information, nor use such information to decrease an employee’s health or employment benefits. Insurers would be prohibited from demanding or using genetic information to deny coverage or raise premiums.

Rigali wants a loophole in the bill’s language closed, to be clear that it also applies to pre-implantation, pre-natal, and pre-adoption genetic tests of children. His point is that fear of being denied insurance or health care should not become a factor in making a decision not to implant an embryo, to abort a child, or not to adopt it. Financial pressures, Rigali wrote, should not be allowed to dissuade a family “from accepting a child with special needs in their lives.”

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Rigali called the failure to cover such cases in the bill “apparently unintentional.”

tTo be sure, Rigali’s specific concern is to ensure that genetic tests do not create new incentives for abortion, very much within the scope of the bishops’ traditional pro-life agenda. But he’s also broadly supportive of the bill itself.

t“The explosion of knowledge regarding genetics in recent years is itself a positive development in our understanding of God’s creation, and could bring enormous benefits to humanity,” Rigali wrote. “At the same time, this knowledge carries with it great power that is subject to abuse. Human beings and entire families could be stigmatized and discriminated against based on the intimate details of their own genetic makeup.”

tThe “Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act” has bi-partisan support in both chambers of Congress, and has twice passed the Senate, in 2003 and 2005. It has always become bogged down in the House, however, due to opposition from the business community and health care providers. The Democratic take-over has changed that landscape, as three of the bill’s original co-sponsors now chair committees which will determine its fate.

tOne primary co-sponsor in the House is Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, a pro-choice Democrat and now chair of the Rules Committee, who has vowed to push the measure towards a vote of the full House as quickly as possible.

tOf course, this is hardly the first time that the Catholic bishops find themselves sympathetic to legislation that also has the backing of liberal Democrats. On certain matters, such as economic justice or immigration reform, sometimes it’s the political left that seems more responsive to Catholic social teaching.

tBut it’s far more rare for the bishops and pro-choice Democrats to find themselves basically on the same side of a bioethics debate.

tThat irony reflects the reality that the new politics of biotech don’t break left/right, but between vested economic interests and advocates of unfettered scientific progress, versus those concerned about the broader social impact of new technologies – on the environment, on human health, on justice, on the family, on human dignity. The fault line tends to pit economic gain against social cost, in other words, and it doesn’t run along the boundaries of existing ideological and partisan formations.

tIn this new world, the political opposite of “pro-life” may no longer be “pro-choice” but “pro-biotech,” and that could change a great deal.

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