The Double Helix: Applying an Ethic of Care to the Duty to Warn Genetic Relatives of Genetic Information

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Abstract

Genetic testing reveals information about a patient's health status and predictions about the patient's future wellness, while also potentially disclosing health information relevant to other family members. With the increasing availability and affordability of genetic testing and the integration of genetics into mainstream medicine, the importance of clarifying the scope of confidentiality and the rules regarding disclosure of genetic findings to genetic relatives is prime. The United Nations International Declaration on Human Genetic Data urges an appreciation for principles of equality, justice, solidarity and responsibility in the context of genetic testing, including a commitment to honoring the privacy and security of the person tested. Considering this global mandate and recent professional statements in the context of a legal amendment to patient privacy policies in Australia, a fresh scrutiny of the legal history of a physician's duty to warn is warranted. This article inquiries whether there may be anything ethically or socially amiss with a potential future recommendation for health professionals or patients to universally disclose particular cancer predisposition genetic diagnosis to genetic family members. While much of the discussion remains applicable to all genetic diagnosis, the article focuses on the practice of disclosure within the context of BRCA1/2 diagnosis. An ‘ethic of care’ interpretation of legal tradition and current practice will serve to reconcile law and medical policy on the issue of physician disclosure of genetic results to family members without patient consent.

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