Genomics and Justice: Investigating judges’, lawyers’ and non-lawyers’ genetic literacy and views on applications of genomics

Selita, Fatos. 2023. Genomics and Justice: Investigating judges’, lawyers’ and non-lawyers’ genetic literacy and views on applications of genomics. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Since the arrival of the Genomic Era, we are able to extract from DNA alone increasingly reliable information on human personal characteristics, such as intelligence, academic performance, personality and health. Genetic applications are now relevant to all contexts of life, including medicine (e.g. genomic medicine, pharmacogenomics); lifestyle (e.g. nutrition, partner choice, health-related behaviours, wellbeing); education and career (e.g. personalization, selection); and law and justice (e.g. fairness, praise and punishment; crime prevention).

The world has therefore entered an era where, subject to our readiness to adapt to these advances, our own genes can benefit us (individuals and society) more than ever. At the same time, these advances can bring much harm to individuals and societies - especially now that the use of genetic advances is becoming ubiquitous.

The pathway from genetic advances to personal positive or negative outcomes can be direct (e.g. disease prevention by means of population wide genetic screening); as well as via mediators and moderators (e.g. genetic literacy, regulation of application of advances, personality characteristics, values, cultural norms etc.). For example, people’s genetic literacy may affect whether they will seek prophylactic genetic testing; and the use of genetic advances will depend on the regulations in place. This means that individuals and societies can control outcomes through mediators and moderators, subject to having the tools to do so (readiness).

Readiness for the Genomic Era for individuals means having solid genetic knowledge, as well as attitudes towards the use of genetic advances that are based on accurate knowledge. For societies, readiness requires an additional element - that key stakeholders at the forefront of regulating genetic advances possess multidisciplinary knowledge that combines genetics, law and an understanding of societal implications of genetic advances. As developing genetically literate societies is a slow process, current societies’ readiness depends to a large extent on readiness of key stakeholders, such as teachers, medical practitioners and policy makers.

Among the most influential stakeholders at this stage, are those entrusted with decisions on legal questions and disputes, and who play a key role in developing policy and legislation – the judiciary and other lawyers. Their genetic literacy, views and attitudes form the core part of the examination of readiness in this thesis.

The thesis brings together work from 5 publications – two reviews and three empirical psychological investigations – forming a comprehensive overview of: genetic advances and the powers they create; the path from these advances and powers to outcomes for individuals and societies; and societies' readiness to control these outcomes.

The two reviews analyse the challenges of the three key powers created by genetic advances – power of polygenic prediction, power of environmental engineering and power of genetic engineering. This analysis suggests that these powers present immense opportunities for societies but also many risks; and that developing effective regulation of these powers is an urgent and challenging task for societies.

For the three empirical investigations data were collected from 10,373 participants, including samples of Supreme Court judges (N=73), lawyers (N=116; and N= 486), as well as unselected participants from different countries. The data were collected using the International Genetic Literacy and Attitudes Survey (iGLAS) – a validated instrument available in 9 languages. In the studies reported here, data were collected using 25 items for literacy and 51 items for views and attitudes, including on use of genetic data in different contexts, gene editing and regulation of genetic advances.

Results from the empirical investigation show that societies are not ready for the Genomic Era. This is true both in terms of low genetic literacy and of many unrealistic views. The results also show that key stakeholders – the judiciary and other lawyers – have uneven genetic knowledge that is not sufficient for ‘judging in the genomic era’. It is primarily poor for questions about the post-genome sequencing findings that cannot be answered by general reasoning. Judges’ and lawyers’ confidence in their genetic knowledge is a poor predictor of their actual knowledge. Significant differences among the groups were found on many issues, both in terms of means (e.g. strength of endorsement) and in terms of variance (e.g. variability in views). For example, judges overall showed stronger agreement (less variability in views) than other lawyers and non-lawyers on how genetic information should be used and by whom, including on controversial matters.

The results showed high agreement on some controversial issues among judges and lawyers. For example, most judges and lawyers thought the State should use genetic information on propensity for violence for prevention of crime (e.g. through surveillance). The qualitative analysis uncovered some reasons for and against such use. Similar high endorsement was found for allowing people to opt for gene editing in order to improve themselves/their children.

These findings on societal readiness for the Genomic Era call for a number of short- and long-term interventions to regulate the outcomes of advances. For example, providing opportunities for the key stakeholders to gain the genetic literacy required for meaningful assessment of benefits and risks. This need was acknowledged by all of the judges in this research. The final part of this thesis provides an overview of the steps needed for achieving Genomic Era readiness.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Genomic Law, Implications of genetics, Genomic Era ethics, Ethics of gene editing, Ethics of environmental engineering, Ethics of polygenic prediction, Use of genetics in courts, Use of genetics by the State, Judges on Genetics, Judges genetic knowledge, Use of genetics in insurance, Use of genetics in employment

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31 July 2023

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

04 Aug 2023 15:45

Last Modified:

08 Aug 2023 09:50


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