All in the Family: Disclosure of "Unwanted" Information to an Adolescent to Benefit a Relative

Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.
American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A (Impact Factor: 2.16). 11/2008; 146A(21):2719-24. DOI: 10.1002/ajmg.a.32362
Source: PubMed


Ethical assessments of clinical decisions are typically based on the preferences and interests of the individual patient. However, some clinical interventions, such as genetic testing or organ donation, may involve multiple family members. In these cases, one family member may have the potential to benefit, while another family member is exposed to potential physical or psychological risk. In the research setting, the balancing of benefits and risks between family members may be further complicated by uncertainty about their magnitude and likelihood. In addition, when the individual facing these apparently uncompensated risks is a child, the situation becomes particularly ethically complicated, as we appreciated in a recent case. Investigators at the National Cancer Institute were faced with a decision about whether it would be appropriate to disclose apparently "unwanted" research test results (length of telomeres in leukocyte subsets) to an adolescent about risk of future disease (dyskeratosis congenita), possibly causing psychological harm and an ethical wrong. These issues were not expected at the outset of the family's study participation but rather emerged with new data about the research tests. Disclosure of the research finding was an important consideration in order to avoid using the adolescent as a stem-cell donor for his sister. Disclosure to the adolescent could not be justified by merely considering the immediate interests and preferences of the adolescent. However, an expanded ethical analysis that considers the adolescent's familial context offers a more complete picture of the adolescent's interests and preferences which provides justification for disclosure.

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    • "This consent includes " the decision in regard to the scope of the given genetic examination as well as regarding the decisions if, and if so to which extent, the examination results may be disclosed or, as the case may be, destroyed " 3 ; however, genetic information is inherited and thus shared within a family. The decision to obtain genetic information may therefore potentially impact other family members (Burnett et al. 2007; Denny et al. 2008). This is, for example, the case, if a young adult conducts a predictive genetic test for Huntington disease which had been found in a grandparent; a positive test result implies the knowledge that the parent must also be a carrier, even if he or she declined undergoing the genetic test. "
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