Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Genetic Research: Groups and Potential Harm

Anyone interested in public engagement and community consultation in genetic research will appreciate Daniel Hausman's article "Protecting Groups from Genetic Research" (Bioethics 2008; 22 (3):157-65). Hausman provides a clear, well-written taxonomy of group types and potential harms to these types as a result of genetic research. He identifies three kinds of groups: structured groups – those with corporate interests distinct from the interests of their individual members (for example, indigenous groups with existing or potential corporate property); identifying groups – unstructured groups (Italian Americans or Ashkenazi women, for example); and potentially identifying groups – those that may be identified as a result of genetic research.

Hausman's taxonomy of harms includes two process-related harms (disrupting and stigmatizing harms) and two outcomes-related harms (undermining and stereotyping harms). Disrupting harms occur, he writes, "when the research process – regardless of its findings – harms a structured group". For example, "taking tissue samples in genetics research might have a ritual significance that could undermine group solidarity". The author thinks that these harms are relatively infrequent in genetic research.

Stigmatizing harms, in contrast, are more common. This process-related harm affects individuals of an identifying group when the mere existence of a genetic research study stigmatizes members of the group.

The third harm, undermining, (an outcomes-related harm) occurs when structured groups are hurt by the findings of genetic research. For examples, Hausman provides the refutation of beliefs about group origins, the loss of potential commercial gain, and the generation or justification of discriminatory treatment.

The fourth kind of harm, also an outcomes-related harm, stereotyping, affects members of identifying groups. If a member of an ethic group were denied insurance coverage because of a genetic susceptibility was perceived to be common to this group, this individual would be the victim of stereotyping.

As would be expected, given the complexities of developing local, national and international research oversight, civic legislation and public consultation, Hausman's proposed protections against these harms are not as well-defined. Here are a few highlights: IRBs - The author does not think that expanding IRB oversight is answer. He writes, "IRBs are not well suited to implement the necessary regulation ... there would be a duplication of oversight, and research would be stymied ... [and they] are not the right bodies to regulate the risks that scientific research poses to third parties." Group engagement – Although he thinks that efforts toward community consultation in genetic research grow "out of an admirable concern to be respectful to individuals and groups that the research may put at risk," the author argues that consultation is primarily valuable when conducting research with structured groups. In contrast, he thinks that consultation with identifying groups facing stereotyping harms (African Americans, for example) is "often infeasible". He writes, "Indeed, by lending salience to social groups, that may in fact be genetically heterogeneous, group consultation may be counterproductive". To protect groups from stereotyping, Hausman hesitatingly (fearing, perhaps, a decline in public support for research) advocates regulation.

Readers looking for more detailed suggestions for protecting groups from genetic research may be frustrated by this article. For example, the author concludes, regarding harms to indigenous groups, that "whoever regulates research (to the extent that research is regulated) should be concerned about the risks of undermining ... and should demand that researchers provide those they study with detailed information and the opportunity to make their concerns heard by political and regulatory authorities". To my ears, such a statement sounds too much like: someone should pick up this trash ... which is not an effective way to motivate people to clean a room. Readers may also wonder if Hausman too quickly dismisses the possibility of protecting the third group type in his taxonomy, "potential identifying" groups. While it is true that one can not consult with a group that is yet to be identified, does this mean that some protections can not be explored or established in advance?

While I hope that Hausman, or someone else, will pick up the loose ends that this article did not have the room to address, his taxonomy of groups and potential harms is very useful. If you can find a copy of this article (subscription required, unfortunately), it's worth reading. –J.O.

Reference: Hausman D. Protecting groups from genetic research. Bioethics 2008; 22 (3):157-65. [Abstract - CiteULike | doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2007.00625.x]

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