NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 3, 2008

In the coming era of personal genomics -- when we all can decode our genes cheaply and easily -- political candidates may be pressed to disclose their own DNA, like tax returns or lists of campaign contributors, as voters seek new ways to weigh a leader's medical and mental fitness for public office, says the Wall Street Journal.

The technology is advancing so quickly that the next generation of presidential hopefuls may be judged not just on the content of their character but also on the possibilities revealed in their genes, highlighting the tension between privacy and public life.

While still high, the cost of high-speed genetic analysis is falling fast:

  • It took 13 years and $2.7 billion to determine all the DNA in the first complete human genome, finished in 2006.
  • Earlier this month, a Mountain View, Calif., company called Complete Genomics announced that by next year it will be able to read out an entire personal genome for $5,000.

More than partisan curiosity is driving interest in a presidential genome, says the Journal:

  • During the 20th century, 14 of 19 U.S. presidents suffered significant illnesses while in the White House, from Woodrow Wilson's incapacitating stroke to Ronald Reagan's colon cancer, says Harvard health policy analyst Aaron Kesselheim.
  • More often than not, he says, the ailing presidents and their physicians withheld the medical data that would have allowed the public to judge the true extent of their condition and, more importantly, how it affected their decision-making ability.

The current candidates and their running mates, under no legal obligation to disclose anything about their health, have been reluctant to make public all their medical records. Mandatory publication of some genetic test results might make it harder for the White House to mislead the public about a president's health risks, says the Journal.

Source: Robert Lee Hotz, "Gene Screen: Will We Vote Against a Candidate's DNA? Office Seekers May One Day Be Pressured to Disclose Genetic Test Results, Giving New Meaning to 'the Body Politic' " Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2008.

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