California Health Department Bureaucrats Enforce Genetic Ignorance at Berkeley


In a novel educational experience, the University of California, Berkeley offered its 5,000 incoming freshmen the opportunity to participate in a voluntary program in which they would be tested for variants of three genes. The specific genes are those involved with digesting lactose, metabolizing alcohol, and absorbing folates. The tests were part of a yearly exercise to involve the new students in a common educational experience centered on a theme. In this case the theme was personalized medicine.

Now, under pressure from the usual claque of fearmongering paternalists, the California Department of Public Health has put an end to this educational exercise. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

"The California Department of Public Health made the determination that what we're doing isn't really actual research or education; that what we're doing is providing medical information, conducting a test," said Dr. Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley's College of Letters & Science and a professor of molecular and cell biology.

Schlissel said he disagreed with that assessment, but said the university will comply with state regulators. UC officials have asked the Department of Public Health to provide legal authority for its interpretation….

Some pro-ignorance advocates objected that students might misinterpret their genetic tests, e.g., a result suggesting that they metabolize alcohol normally might be used as an excuse to binge drink. Of course, Bring Your Genes to Cal is exactly the sort of program that offers the chance to educate students about such misinterpretations. Sigh.

Schlissel said the controversy and intervention by state regulators has raised interesting questions for the discussions. "Who has authority to tell an individual what they're allowed to know about themselves?" he said. "I don't know the answer to that."

Well, I do. Nobody.