Sarah Leamon: Parliament's free vote on genetic testing offers refreshing example of democracy in action

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      Last week, Parliament passed a bill that will bar health and life insurance companies from forcing clients to disclose results of any genetic testing procedures that they have undergone.

      It may surprise you to learn that prior to this happening, Canada was the only G7 country without any legal protections for people who face discrimination due to their genetic makeup. 

      Individuals deemed “at risk” for developing certain genetic disorders, like Huntington’s disease, for instance, could be denied life insurance coverage unless they agreed to undergo invasive genetic testing to prove their genetic identity. This process has been largely accepted as being unfair, dehumanizing, and contrary to individual rights and liberties. 

      Polls indicate that many Canadians, who would otherwise undergo genetic testing in order to become better informed about their health-care needs, and make positive changes in their lifestyle according to those needs, were dissuaded from undergoing the procedure for fear of repercussions from insurance companies. The concerns associated with being denied coverage, or paying inflated premiums, were enough to stop people from using advancements in genetic testing to their benefit.

      This bill, popularly known as the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act, makes it illegal for insurance companies and employers to request genetic testing or ask for test results of any genetic testing procedures that have already been performed. Breaking the law could result in large financial penalties or even jail time.

      Predictably, the bill’s most notorious critic was the Canadian insurance industry, which argued that premiums would skyrocket for all Canadians if it's denied access to some people’s genetic test results.

      However, their logic seems backward when one considers the overwhelming positive impact that increased genetic testing should have on our population. After all, once people are no longer concerned about the potential ramifications of genetic discrimination, they will be more likely to seek it out and use it proactively and accordingly. This should lead to a healthier population, on the whole, which should, in turn, reduce insurance costs overall.

      But the insurance industry was not the only critic of the proposed bill. 

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed concern and directed his Liberal backbenchers to vote against the bill. He stated constitutional concerns as his primary reason for not backing the new law.  Trudeau argued that the bill offends the delicate balance of power between federal and provincial jurisdictions in this country, fearing it would encroach upon the provinces’ and territories’ ability to properly regulate this issue for themselves. 

      However, the prime minister’s concerns did little to convince members of Parliament. His wishes were defied and the bill passed by a whooping vote of 222-60. 

      While the passing of the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act is good news for all Canadians, and particularly for those who could be subject to discrimination due to their genetic makeup, it has even bigger implications for all of us. This parliamentary act gestures to a new era of government free voting and productive partisan politics in our country.

      Many Liberal MPs defied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and voted to protect insurance industry clients' confidentiality.

      When deciding this matter, MPs were free to vote as they saw fit. They were not forced to toe the party line or vote according to the prime minister’s direction. 

      This is a marked departure from the past, when MPs were routinely expected to vote according to their party’s whip, and not their own conscious or the wishes of their constituents. Failure to toe the party line, and vote as instructed, could jeopardize one’s political career in a very tangible way. 

      While Trudeau has said that his party will restrict free votes to issues that fall outside party platform, and do not go to the heart of chartermatters, it is still encouraging to see this method being effectively and expediently exercised in our government moving forward.

      The passage of this bill is illustrative of good government and a glowing example of MPs being able to vote in line with their constituents, and to represent their interests in a fair, democratic, and conscientious way. 

      Hopefully, there will be many more examples of such free votes to come.