J Med Ethics 34:275-278 doi:10.1136/jme.2006.019802
  • Ethics

Predictive genetic testing of children for adult-onset diseases and psychological harm

  1. P J Malpas
  1. P J Malpas, Philosophy Department, The University of Auckland, Private Bag, 92019, Auckland, New Zealand; p.malpas{at}
  • Received 6 November 2006
  • Revised 3 April 2007
  • Accepted 4 April 2007


One of the central arguments given to resist testing currently healthy, asymptomatic children for adult-onset diseases is that they may be psychologically harmed by the knowledge gained from such tests. In this discussion I examine two of the most serious arguments: children who are tested may face limited futures, and that testing may result in damage to the child’s self esteem (where the test result returns a positive diagnosis). I claim that these arguments do not stand up to critical evaluation. In conclusion, whilst I do not suggest that all at-risk children should be tested for adult-onset diseases we ought to listen carefully to some parental requests for such testing because the putative psychological harms may not be as significant or likely as initially thought. This is because parents generally have the best interests of their children at heart and if they are properly supported and educated about predictive genetic testing and the possible consequences, then the risk of psychological harms occurring may be ameliorated.


  • Funding: This work was funded by the Auckland Medical Research Foundation of New Zealand, Senior Scholarship.

  • Competing interests: None.

  • i Generally there is no cure or treatment for most adult-onset diseases. If you have the genetic mutation you will develop the disease unless you die of something else before hand.

  • ii That is, she can understand what is being said to her and is not distressed by being given too much or too little information.

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