Presidential DNA: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

Millions of individuals in the United States will know something about their own DNA by 2012. Whole genome sequencing will no longer be the exotic luxury item it is today. Genome scans like those available now for a few hundred dollars will be dirt cheap, if not free. By almost all accounts, genetic information will be more accessible to more people in 2012 than it is today.

The next presidential candidates will face an electorate that is radically more conversant in and curious about DNA than ever before. We should reasonably expect that the presidential election of 2012 will include, for the first time, requests for candidates to make their genetic information part of the public record.

Should the candidates heed these requests?

In an article published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, Robert Green and George Annas advocate for the next presidential candidates to honor a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for DNA. If genetic information is invoked by either candidate, the authors argue, the outcome will almost surely be one of exaggerated claims:

“…in the world of inflammatory accusations and smears that characterize presidential politics, it would be easy to engage in what might be called “genetic McCarthyism” by implying that an increased risk of disease is more substantial than it really is.”

The issue of presidential DNA and who gets access to it, is here to stay. 2012 presidential hopefuls have a few years to work out their talking points.

What would your talking points be? Would requests for disclosure of genetic information affect your decision to run for public office? Could you imagine scenarios where genetic information might influence your decision to vote for one candidate over another?

This week I’ll be interviewing Robert Green to learn more about his views on the future role, or absence, of genetics in political campaigns. Comments are open.

Green, Robert C., Annas, George J. The Genetic Privacy of Presidential Candidates. N Engl J Med 2008 359: 2192-2193.