A story in this week's Nature, "Genome test slammed for assessing 'racial purity', is a case in point, suggesting that this isn't just hysteria on our part. A genetic diagnosis company in Hungary, licensed to do genetic testing for health purposes, has certified a far right member of the Hungarian parliament to be free of Roma or Jewish heritage. The company scanned 18 loci for variants that they say are at higher frequency in Roma and Jewish populations. They produced certification of the candidate's pure Hungarian ancestry in time for the election, which this candidate went on to win. How much the certification had to do with the win, who knows, but that's not the point.
Nature reports that the company argues on its website that it “rejects all forms of discrimination, so it has no right to judge the purpose for which an individual will use his or her test result, and so for ethical reasons it could not have refused to carry out the test." Even so, many in Hungary have reacted negatively -- the government has condemned this misuse of genetic testing, Hungary's Medical Research Council secretary says it's "professionally wrong, ethically unacceptable -- and illegal," a Jewish member of the company's board resigned.
“The council’s stand is important,” says Lydia Gall, an Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at civil-rights group Human Rights Watch, who is based in Amsterdam. In Hungary, “there have been many violent crimes against Roma and acts of anti-Semitism in the past few years”, she says. Politicians who try to use genetic tests to prove they are ‘pure’ Hungarian fan the flames of racial hatred, she adds.It's important to note that the testing did not precede the racial hatred, but it does serve to feed the frenzy. This is why we have so often cautioned that scientists need to be very careful about the kinds of uses for which they use or advocate genetic testing. Not long ago similar ancestry testing was proposed for screening immigrants to the UK--for national 'security' purposes. Sound familiar? It's just what the British eugenicists were up to 85 years ago.
The problem is that when the horse is out of the barn, it's too late. So, indeed, it's a very delicate and difficult issue, but there are arenas into which scientists should not tread -- or not without some clear and controlling societal agreement on what can and cannot be investigated.