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Genetic Discrimination Puts Women At Risk. Let's Put An End To It

03/06/2017 04:30 EST | Updated 03/06/2017 04:55 EST

March 8 is International Women's Day, a time to reflect on milestones in women's rights and equality. It is also an opportunity to address continuing equity gaps and other challenges facing women today. This year, International Women's Day happens to be the day on which Parliament has an opportunity to pass Bill S-201 and, in so doing, enhance the health and well-being of countless women across Canada.

brca1

A molecular model of breast cancer type 1 susceptibility (BRCA1) protein. (Photo: Alfred Pasieka/Science Photo Library via Getty Images)

S-201 would institute a federal ban on genetic discrimination. Today, there is no law preventing anyone in Canada, including employers or insurance providers, from demanding genetic test results or discriminating based on genetic information. Canada lags behind in this regard as the only G7 country without specific protections against genetic discrimination. Consequently, fearing punitive abuse of the results, countless Canadians refuse testing.

This is tragic and unacceptable, particularly for a country that places so much value on our universal health-care system. Thanks to advances in genetic research, testing now holds the key to preventing many major illnesses -- and these benefits are likely to grow exponentially in the coming years. This issue is a clear example of the law failing to keep pace with scientific progress.

Canadian women have a major stake in these developments and in the fight against genetic discrimination. Take, for example, the BRCA genetic markers linked to a heightened risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Women with these markers have as much as an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and as much as a 60 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer. Among the general population, these numbers are 11.7 per cent and 1.4 per cent, respectively. Early detection of the BRCA marker through genetic testing enables patients to monitor and manage their health, taking preventative action that can significantly diminish -- or virtually eliminate -- their cancer risk.

frustrated business woman

(Photo: Kieferpix via Getty Images)

For a young woman taking her first steps in building a professional career, the "wrong" genetic test results can impose a new glass ceiling -- enabling employers to deny her advancement in the workplace because she is at risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer in the future. Compounding the issue, discovery of a genetic mutation might lead to exorbitant insurance premiums. And yet, should she avoid genetic testing, she will forgo the benefits of early detection, monitoring and intervention that could save her life. How can this be allowed to persist in 2017?

Specific segments of society are particularly at risk. Jewish women of European descent are 10 times more likely than others to have the BRCA marker, which explains why the Jewish community has proactively engaged all parties on the Hill to urge passage of S-201. Other ethnic groups -- including some First Nations, French Canadian, African, South Asian and Scandinavian communities -- are also disproportionately likely to inherit genetic markers associated with serious illnesses.

In 2017, no Canadian would accept discrimination based on such genetically determined factors as sex or skin colour. As a matter of principle and common sense, MPs from all parties should unite to pass Bill S-201, which will make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of one's genes.

MPs would be wise to pass S-201 in its entirety to support women's health on International Women's Day.

This is not a partisan issue, as demonstrated by the unanimous support S-201 received in the Senate, the House at Second Reading and the House Justice Committee. In fact, during the last election, the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats all pledged to support legislation banning genetic discrimination. This consensus is laudable and all too rare in politics, but it is ultimately fruitless if MPs vote to defeat S-201 or amend it beyond recognition.

Alarmingly, several amendments have been put forward at the eleventh hour that seek to gut the bill. If adopted, these changes would result in a tiny minority of Canadians being protected from genetic discrimination, creating confusion and leaving most Canadians vulnerable. This is highly problematic, and undermines the fundamental purpose of S-201.

MPs would be wise to reject these amendments and pass S-201 in its entirety, to prevent genetic discrimination for all Canadians, and to support women's health on International Women's Day.

Elisabeth Baugh is CEO of Ovarian Cancer Canada.

Sara Saber-Freedman is Executive Vice President of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

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