5 Ethical Issues in Genetics Counseling

Updated November 30, 2022 · 2 Min Read

Explore this resource by Best Counseling Degrees to learn all about genetics counseling ethical issues.

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Though the use of genetic testing is on the rise, doctors and counselors must be aware of some of the common ethical issues in genetics counseling. While doctors must follow the Hippocratic oath, do whatever is in the best interests of their patients and keep their private information confidential, they must also be aware of ethical issues that may arise. After looking at some of these issues, you may change your mind about working as a genetic counselor.

Identifying Pregnant Patients

Identifying and testing pregnant patients is one of the more common ethical issues in genetics counseling. Genetic testing can now reveal whether one or both parents are carriers for a medical condition, and some tests can reveal whether the unborn child has genetic anomalies that will lead to birth defects, mental disabilities or physical handicaps. Counselors may face ethical dilemmas because they know that those pregnant patients will opt for an abortion rather than carry a child to term.

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Lack of Treatments

Another issue that some counselors may deal with occurs when they test for conditions that have no known treatments. Alzheimer's is a serious condition that affects a large number of elderly people, and genetic testing can reveal whether a patient has a high risk of suffering from Alzheimer's later. As there is no known cure for the disease, counselors will find themselves in the position of telling patients that they will likely contract the disease while knowing that there is nothing they can do for those patients.

Related link: The Complete List of Master’s in Genetic Counseling Programs, Ranked by Affordability

False Results

The likelihood of false negative and false positive results is another of the ethical issues in genetics counseling. An article published in the Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health found that some genetic tests are only 60% accurate. When testing pregnant women for Down syndrome markers, the results are only 60 to 80% accurate. This may result in a woman terminating her pregnancy without knowing if the results of the test were completely accurate. Counselors must explain that false positive and false negative results are common as they test their patients.

Inappropriate Testing

One of the issues that first arose when genetic testing became more common is inappropriate testing. This refers to couples who go through genetic counseling and genetic testing in the hopes of getting the exact type of child they want. It's still a talked about topic today. With genetic testing, couples can now visit doctors, go through testing and them terminate pregnancies that do not result in perfect children or even pregnancies that result in a child of the gender they do not want. Even with informed consent, counselors may still feel uncomfortable with counseling and testing some prospective parents.

Forensic Issues

A lesser known and talked about of the ethical issues in genetics counseling relates to the idea of forensic testing. With genetic testing, doctors and counselors can now retain genetic information of patients who never faced legal troubles in the past. There is a risk that those genetic markers may go into a larger database that the government uses in the future and provides law enforcement with access to when investigating cases. This may lead to police officers finding family members who share the same genetic markers and using that information to catch criminals. There are not any laws currently on the books that will prevent this from happening.

Ethical issues are commonplace in the medical field. Genetic counselors do genetic tests to help patients find out if they have a higher risk of developing diseases, but these professionals must also deal with some of the more common ethical issues in genetics counseling on a daily basis.

See also: The Complete List of Master’s in Genetic Counseling Programs, Ranked by Affordability

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