With human genetics, it seems, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. As the science of genetic diagnosis matures, researchers are learning how to spot dozens of hereditary weaknesses and diseases by simply testing a cheek scraping or a sample of blood. But treating or preventing most of those genetic conditions is still largely the stuff of speculation, and will likely remain so for years. Therein lies an ethical problem, as described by Dorothy Nelkin in her book Dangerous Diagnostics (The Scientist, Nov. 27, 1989, page 13): Once a person is labeled as genetically flawed, what is to stop the insurance companies, employers, and governments of the world from discriminating against him or her?

As the massive Human Genome Project gets under way, questions of just that sort have prompted the National Institutes of Health to create a new program focusing on the ethical issues that surround...

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