Beyond 'Genetic Discrimination': Toward the Broader Harm of Geneticism

9 Pages Posted: 22 Dec 2010 Last revised: 20 Feb 2014

See all articles by Susan M. Wolf

Susan M. Wolf

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: Winter 1995


This article critiques the dominant conceptualization of "genetic discrimination" and offers a new conceptualization grounded in the evolution of antidiscrimination and equality theory applied to race and sex. Both in scholarship and statute, using genetic information to disadvantage individuals is usually framed as "genetic discrimination." This approach typically condemns only use of explicitly genetic tests, rather than use of family history and other medical information that can suggest genetic vulnerabilities. It may actually permit some use of explicitly genetic tests, as in insurance underwriting when there is actuarial justification. The typical antidiscrimination approach also falsely suggests that the use of genetics to disadvantage some is a "we-they" problem of minority deviation from a norm of genetic health, despite the reality that we all have potentially deleterious genes. By creating a false genetic norm, the dominant legal and policy approach frustrates structural reform (as in insurance and employment), obscures and fails to address the deep psychological roots of genetic stereotyping and prejudice, and isolates genetic from other harms (based on race, sex, and disability) despite their historical interrelationships. This article builds on the literature on race, sex, and intersectional disadvantage to reinterpret "genetic discrimination" as something larger, the use of genetic notions to create and reinforce relationships that disadvantage individuals and groups based on explicit genetic claims or implicit genetic stereotypes and assumptions.

Keywords: Genetics, genetic discrimination, genetics and insurance, genetics and employment, health insurance, antidiscrimination theory, equality theory, genetic reductionism, genetic essentialism, stereotypes, eugenics, GINA, race, gender

Suggested Citation

Wolf, Susan M., Beyond 'Genetic Discrimination': Toward the Broader Harm of Geneticism (Winter 1995). Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 345-353, Winter 1995, Available at SSRN:

Susan M. Wolf (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-625-3406 (Phone)
612-624-9143 (Fax)


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