Genomics in general practice

Ethical principles
☰ Table of contents

The ethical principles that guide all medical care apply in genomics. However, ethical dilemmas arise when there is tension or conflict between the rights of different family members. Key ethical principles include:1

  • Justice – Patients should be treated equally, and there should be equity of access to services regardless of place of residence, ethnicity, gender, religion, age or disability.
  • Respect for autonomy – The right of an individual to self-determination, including privacy and confidentiality.
  • Beneficence – Taking positive action to do good.
  • Non-maleficence – Do no harm.
  • There may be tension when these principles are considered with respect to the right of an individual to:
  • know, or not to know, information relevant to their own health (autonomy)
  • disclose, or not to disclose, personal information (privacy)
  •  make an informed decision regarding genetic testing.

Genetic counselling emphasises that an autonomous choice be made; that is, a choice that is informed and reflective of the individual’s own values, and made freely (without coercion). However, ethical dilemmas may arise. For example:

  • as a result of genetic testing, an individual’s result may disclose the genetic status of another family member (eg a monozygotic [identical] twin)2 who has not had testing (and may not wish to)
  • an individual refuses to disclose to other family members that they are at risk of particular diseases3
  • ·parents request that their child (<18 years of age) be tested for an adult-onset condition where there is no health benefit for the child, thus affecting the child’s future autonomy.4

In any of these situations, it is important to explore with the patient the potential harms and benefits, and the reasons for their request. Referral to genetic services for counselling is strongly recommended.


Resources for general practitioners

Centre for Genetics Education, Fact sheet 19: Ethical issues in human genetics and genomics

Financial Services Council, FSC Standard no. 16: Family medical history policy

National Health and Medical Research Council, Genetic discrimination

Genomics in general practice


  1. Beauchamp TL. The ‘four principles’ approach to health care ethics. In: Ashcroft RE, Dawson A, Draper H, McMillan JR, editors. Principles of health care ethics. 2nd edn. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.
  2. Andorno R. The right not to know: An autonomy based approach. J Med Ethics 2004;30(5):435–39.
  3. Weaver M. The double helix: Applying an ethic of care to the duty to warn genetic relatives of genetic information. Bioethics 2016;30(3):181–87.
  4. Human Genetics Society of Australasia. Policy: Pre-symptomatic and predictive testing for children and young adults. Sydney: HGSA, 2014. [Accessed 13 December 2017].


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