Sydney Morning Herald

By David Weisbrot

During the Labor leadership stoush, almost everything about Kevin Rudd's fitness for high office was called into question by some of his parliamentary colleagues — but never once did they mention his heart valve replacement surgery in August.

In the hothouse, reveal-all atmosphere of American politics, however, it has already been the case for years that presidential candidates come under pressure to release their medical records - and as Mitt Romney learnt, their tax records — for public scrutiny.

There were few concerns in 2008 about Barack Obama. However, John McCain, 71 years old and a melanoma survivor who joked that he was ''older than dirt and had more scars than Frankenstein'', had to assure voters that if elected, his vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, would remain the proverbial ''heartbeat away from the presidency'' for a long time.

With the next campaign under way, it can be expected that similar issues will arise again. One intriguing new wrinkle is that remarkable advances in DNA science and technology now make it possible to provide individuals with a complete scan of their whole genome for only a few thousand dollars.

Already leading geneticists, such as George Church, a Harvard professor and founder of the Personal Genome Project, have argued the DNA of all candidates should be submitted for analysis, with the results published.

''I would be shocked if Americans and people in other countries don't want this type of data … It is not like we are collecting horoscope data or tea-leaf data,'' Church said.

''These are real facts, just as real as bank accounts and the influence of political action committees or family members.''

Apart from contributing to the general decline of personal dignity and privacy for those individuals who put themselves forward for public office, there are some special and powerful reasons why genetic information might become dangerous ''in the wrong hands."

If a candidate's voting patterns, campaign finances and tax returns provide fertile fields for journalists and rival camps, imagine what they could do with more than 6 million bits of genetic information. It will be possible to see which candidates have the genetic markers associated with myriad late-onset medical conditions, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, heart disease, stroke and various cancers.

And while behavioural genetics is only in its infancy for clinical purposes, research studies indicate genetic associations with mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder, as well as risk-taking and aggressive behaviours.

None of us has the ''perfect genome'', so every political aspirant will have a few genetic skeletons in the cupboard. A good genetic counsellor would carefully advise a patient, and his or her family, that this information usually points to only a degree of relative risk. Environmental and lifestyle factors — as well as sheer luck — also play important roles.

Unfortunately, however, the political discourse will be much less nuanced, with the real danger of a sort of ''genetic McCarthyism''. Presumably, once this genie is unleashed, any candidate who refuses to submit to this testing regime on principle will be asked ''what they've got to hide'', recalling the craziness over Obama's birth certificate.

Might journalists, political activists or others seek to obtain a candidate's hair, saliva or blood surreptitiously and submit it for testing? This would amount to a crime in 10 US states, but not federally — and not in Australia, despite the acceptance of an Australian Law Reform Commission recommendation to this effect by the Howard government in 2005 that has still not been acted upon.

We have taken significant strides in recent years to prevent the bleak future depicted in the film Gattaca, in which society is divided into ''valids'' and ''invalids'' — the latter a genetic underclass whose potential is confined by their unalterable test results.

In Australia, following the commission's recommendations, federal law was amended in 2009 to prohibit unlawful discrimination, including in the workplace, on the basis of a person's real or perceived genetic status.

In the US, the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act 2008, which contains similar provisions, sailed through the US Congress in a rare display of complete bipartisanship, and was signed into law by President George Bush. The lone dissenter was Ron Paul of Texas, a current candidate for the Republican nomination.

Paul argued, in common with the US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, that the law would unduly fetter decision-making by employers and increase the cost of doing business, especially since health insurance is so closely tied to employment in the US.

Perhaps we'll soon learn whether his genes made him do it.