Sacramento, Calif. /California Newswire/ — Senate Bill 559, a landmark civil rights protection bill authored by Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) was approved with strong bipartisan support by the State Assembly today. The bill protects Californians by prohibiting discrimination based on genetic information in California. The legislation now goes back to the Senate for concurrence and then to the Governor for his signature.

“This bill enhances the civil rights of every Californian,” said Senator Padilla. “Discrimination on the basis of genetic information is no less offensive than discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. California has a compelling interest in promoting and fostering the medical promise of genomics while relieving the fear of discrimination by strengthening laws to prevent it.”

Specifically, SB 559 would include genetic information as a prohibited basis for discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, education, public accommodations, health insurance coverage, life insurance coverage, mortgage lending, and elections.

“California led the nation with the passage of the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959, SB 559 updates and strengthens the Unruh Act and brings it confidently into the 21st Century by adding genetic information,” said Senator Padilla. “More than 50 years after this groundbreaking Act was passed, we must ensure that with the advances in genetic testing that this information cannot be used to discriminate against our citizens.”

At a national level, the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) became Federal Law in 2008.  However, the federal GINA’s range of genetic information and nondiscrimination protections is limited to employment and health insurance coverage.  SB 559 would ensure that the range of coverage for Californians is consistent with existing California civil rights laws and would include genetic information as a prohibited basis for discrimination.

Deciphering the sequence of the human genome and other advances in genetics create major new opportunities for medical progress in California and beyond.  New knowledge about the genetic basis of illness will allow for earlier detection of potential illnesses long before symptoms become apparent. Genetic testing can allow individuals to take steps to reduce the likelihood that they will suffer from particular disorders.

Automation in genetic labs has exponentially increased the speed and efficiency of a complete genomic DNA sequence.  What took years of international effort to produce in the mid-1980’s, can today be completed in a few minutes. Genomic sequencing is fast approaching the point where it will be widely affordable to the general public and an integral part of health care.

As more and more Californians gain access to their personal genomic information, there is an increased potential for the misuse of genetic information to discriminate.  In the early 1900’s, the emerging science of genetics became the basis of state laws, which resulted in the sterilization of people who had presumed genetic “defects,” such as mental retardation, mental disease, epilepsy, blindness, and hearing loss, among other conditions.

The first sterilization law was enacted in Indiana in 1907.  California followed suit in 1909.  Thirty states ultimately enacted such laws that resulted in 64,000 mostly poor, young women being sterilized.  Shamefully, nearly a third of these sterilizations took place in California.  Most of these state laws have since been repealed, and many have been modified to include essential constitutional requirements of due process and equal protection.

Although genes are facially neutral markers, many genetic conditions and disorders are associated with particular racial and ethnic groups and gender. Because some genetic traits are most prevalent in particular groups, members of a particular group may be stigmatized or discriminated against as a result of that genetic information.

This form of discrimination was evident in the 1970s, which saw the advent of programs to screen and identify carriers of sickle cell anemia, a disease which afflicts African-Americans.  Once again, State legislatures began to enact discriminatory laws in the area, and in the early 1970s began mandating genetic screening of all African Americans for sickle cell anemia, leading to discrimination and unnecessary fear.

Examples of recent genetic discrimination in the workplace include the use of pre-employment genetic screening at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which led to a court decision that ruled in favor of the employees in that case (Norman-Bloodsaw v. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory).