In a rare departure, President George W. Bush, the House of Representatives and most of the US Senate have found a landmark piece of legislation on which they can agree. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2007 was passed overwhelmingly by the House late in April. The bill would bar insurers from using the results from genetic tests to deny coverage to new applicants, or from hiking the price of premiums for existing customers. It would also make it illegal for employers to use genetic information in hiring, firing or promotion decisions. (Shamefully, however, military personnel are excluded from the act's protections.) Such protections are sorely needed in many countries, but certainly in the United States, where employers and private insurers pay a significant proportion of health costs and have every reason to try to minimize the health risks of those they hire or insure.

Despite the endorsement of the White House and strong historical support for such a measure in the Senate, the bill is still awaiting a Senate vote. It has been delayed by a crammed legislative calendar and by behind-the-scenes wrangling of lawmakers over issues ranging from the measure's definition of a genetic test to whether the bill as written would allow violators to be sued twice for the same offence.

These negotiations should be concluded soon. There have seldom been so many good reasons to see a bill speedily enacted. Public concerns about the potential abuse of genetic information have risen steadily in the past decade. Leading voices, from the White House to top geneticists such as Francis Collins, argue that this threatens both the beneficial use of more than 1,100 clinically available genetic tests and the ability to conduct further research. Genetic studies rely, after all, on the good will of thousands of subjects who agree to have their DNA scrutinized. Without solid legal protection in place, people will remain justifiably wary of being tested, whether for research or for their personal health. The wealth of information now pouring out — for instance, in a raft of genome-wide association studies that are targeting suspect genes in complex diseases such as diabetes — will not be fully exploited, and the benefits of personalized medicine will be, at best, only partially realized.

Given the nature of its private-insurance system, it is apt that the United States should be leading the way with the current legislation. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union includes “genetic features” in its non-discrimination protections, and individual countries are charged with making their domestic laws compatible with it. Yet many countries — France and Austria are notable exceptions — have so far failed to enact an explicitly protective genetic information law. In this, they could take a leaf from the US book — provided that the book finally gets written.