Once all the disease-causing genes are identified, researchers say it will be possible for people at high risk of cancer or heart disease to be identified by their genetic code. The genes, in effect, could forecast years in advance who will get sick and who will not.
Employers and health insurance companies could save millions of dollars by not hiring or enrolling people whose genes show them to be highly susceptible to diseases, experts say.
Gene discrimination could, thus, join the list of other forms of discrimination--racial, ethnic, and sexual.
"While we might have the scientific basis for a whole new revolution in medicine, we might find that nobody wants to participate because of their fears of misuse," said Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute. "That would be a terrible tragedy."
Already people are expressing their concerns.
A Time/CNN poll appearing this week in Time found that 75% of 1,218 surveyed Americans did not want insurance companies to know their genetic code. Eighty-four percent didn't want the government to know.
For their own personal use, though, 61% of those polled wanted to know if they were genetically predisposed to disease and 67% wanted to share their genetic code with their doctors.
Collins and others believe that a federal law forbidding genetic discrimination is "absolutely essential" for people to take full advantage of the genetic revolution.
"Without a law, the public is going to be fearful of having this information derived from them," said Collins.
President Clinton already has issued an executive order forbidding genetic discrimination against federal employees. But for the rest of the public, there is no such federal protection.
Democrats in the House and the Senate have proposed anti-genetic discrimination statutes, but neither bill has progressed very far in the legislative process.
Genetic discrimination "is happening today in job sites all around the country," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said last week. "Individuals are being turned down. They are denied promotions. It is wrong."
Kennedy is a co-sponsor of Senate bill 1322.
House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt warned that "millions of Americans may be afraid to have genetic testing done because the results of those tests could put their health insurance in jeopardy."
"Social policy must keep pace with science," said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the sponsor of House bill H.R. 2457.
Proponents hope to force a vote in the House by getting 218 members to sign on in support of the bill.
John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the Republican majority would push some version of the bill but questioned the motivation of Democrats supporting the bill.
"Trying to make politics out of this seems to be rather curious," Feehery said.