Curing Disease or Playing God: Obama and McCain on Genetics Research

What do the candidates' records say about their positions on genetic technology?
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Question 7: Genetics Research

The extraordinary development of genetics over the last 20 years has resulted in both a wealth of new technologies and a wide range of ethical concerns relating to that technology. Like most scientific research, a great deal of genetics research is either run by the government directly or funded by the federal government in some fashion. As a result, the next president will struggle with genetics-related decisions that would have been unimaginable to his predecessor. Let’s look at the candidates’ history of genetics legislation.

One of the biggest ethical dilemmas related to genetics is the issue of human cloning. Vehemently opposed by social conservatives, President Bush specifically decried human cloning in his 2006 State of the Union address. Yet it was the Democrats who moved first on the legislative side. S 1520, the Human Cloning Ban Act of 2005 was introduced by Dianne Feinstein (D.-Ca.), and had 29 cosponsors, only four of whom were Republican. Amongst the Democratic supporters of the bill: Barack Obama.

However, while some legislation has revolved around human cloning or human/animal hybrids, the only bills related to genetics that didn’t die in committee focused on non-discrimination based on the results of genetic screening.

S 306, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2005, was proposed by Olympia Snowe (R.-Me.) and passed the Senate with unanimous support, but did not pass the house. The bill prevents insurance companies from adjusting the cost of coverage based on the results of a genetic test and prevents insurance companies from requiring people to take a genetic test.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was eventually passed in 2008 as HR 493. In his ScienceDebate answer, Senator Obama says specifically, “I have been a long-time supporter of the recently passed Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act.” While it is true that Obama voted for an earlier version of the bill, Senator Obama, along with Senators McCain and Clinton, were absent when the Senate voted on the version of the bill that would eventually become law.

As mentioned in his ScienceDebate answer, Senator Obama also personally introduced S 976, Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2007. The bill appropriates $75 million a year to establish a National Biobanking Initiative and another $26 million to “Realizing the Potential of Personalized Medicine”. Currently neither the 2007 nor the 2008 versions of the bill have moved out of committee.

On this topic, it looks like Obama’s record backs up his ScienceDebate answer, while McCain’s record seems a little to empty to support his answer, beyond his pledge to prevent genetic discrimination. Tomorrow we continue in this vein by looking at Obama and McCain’s answers regarding stem cells.