A teacher in Germany who has been refused a permanent job because a genetic disorder runs in her family is now fighting the decision in court, the British Medical Journal reported last week. The woman, who has relatives affected by Huntington's disease (HD), was rejected for a job on the grounds that she was at high risk of developing the illness herself.
Under German employment law, government authorities can apparently reject job applicants on the ground of ill health, to minimise absenteeism and save money. But Professor Spiritos Simitis, chairman of the German National Ethics Council, has condemned the decision, made by the Hessen educational authorities. 'A law that puts an acute disease that hinders people from performing a job on the same level as a mere prediction about what a person's health might be like in ten, 20 or 30 years is not acceptable' he said.
HD is a genetic condition that causes progressive damage in certain areas of the brain, leading to gradual physical, emotional and mental changes. Symptoms of HD usually appear between the ages of 30 and 50 years, and people with the disease have a 50 per cent chance of passing it on to each of their children. The doctor who carried out the health check on the teacher reported that she was fit to perform her job, but that there was a 'higher risk' of future absenteeism because members of her family have HD. It is not known if the woman had taken a genetic test to find out whether or not she has inherited the condition. But Professor Simitis argued that if the government was prepared to accept the risk that civil servants might develop alcoholism, depression or other forms of ill health, then it should also accept the risks associated with genetic diseases.