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Communicating genetic information in the family: the familial relationship as the forgotten factor


Communicating genetic information to family members has been the subject of an extensive debate recently in bioethics and law. In this context, the extent of the relatives’ right to know and not to know is examined. The mainstream in the bioethical literature adopts a liberal perception of patient autonomy and offers a utilitarian mechanism for solving familial tensions over genetic information. This reflects a patient-centred approach in which disclosure without consent is justified only to prevent serious harm or death to others. Based on a legal and bioethical analysis on the one hand, and an examination of empirical studies on the other, this paper advocates the adoption of a relational perception of autonomy, which, in the context of genetics, takes into account the effect that any decision—whether to disclose or not to disclose—will have on the familial relationship and the dynamics of the particular family. Adding this factor to the criteria usually advocated by lawyers and ethicists will facilitate reaching a sensitive decision, which recognises the various interests of family members beyond the risk to physical health. Taking this factor into account will require a process of deliberation both between doctors and patients, and in the family. It will also require a relaxation of medical confidentiality, as the family rather than the patient is gradually perceived as the unit of care. Moreover, adopting such a relational approach will accord with current views of doctors and patients who base their decision primarily on the nature of the familial relationship.

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