Supreme court upholds genetic non-discrimination law

Canada's highest court affirms constitutionality of federal law preventing insurers from demanding genetic information

Supreme court upholds genetic non-discrimination law

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in favour of a federal law that prohibits third parties, including insurance companies, from requiring individuals to submit genetic information.

The law, Bill S-201, was introduced in 2017 as a private member’s bill by the retired Liberal senator James Cowan, and sponsored in the House of Commons by Liberal MP Rob Oliphant.

It aims to offer valuable protections to Canadians’ genetic information, including a prohibition on life insurance companies’ use of genetic tests as a condition of coverage. It also includes exceptions for medical, pharmaceutical, and scientific purposes.

Aside from amending the Canadian Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act, the legislation introduced the first nationwide penalties against genetic discrimination, including a fine of up to $ 1 million or imprisonment for five years, reported CBC News.

According the news outlet, Cowan and Oliphant were encouraged to push the legislation after being told by geneticists at a Toronto hospital that parents were choosing not to get genetic tests done out of fear that it would have impact their future prospects for employment and insurance eligibility.

“It's the key to precision medicine, personalized medicine,” Cowan told CBC News.

As the bill was being shepherded through the House of Commons, it faced some resistance from then-justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, who contended that it infringed on the sovereignty of provinces and territories.

She sent letters to all the provinces and territorial governments soliciting their opinion on its constitutionality. Quebec challenged the law and referred it to the province’s court of appeal, which unanimously found in 2018 that the legislation was unconstitutional as it fell outside the framework of criminal law.

That decision was appealed by the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness, which took the issue to Canada’s top court. On Friday, it upheld the constitutionality of Bill S-201 in a 5-4 decision, vindicating the mission pursued by Coan and Oliphant.

“Nobody should be discriminated against because of their DNA, because of their chromosomal makeup,” Oliphant said.