Epigenetic markers could potentially be used for risk assessment in risk-stratified population-based cancer screening programmes. Whereas current screening programmes generally aim to detect existing cancer, epigenetic markers could be used to provide risk estimates for not-yet-existing cancers. Epigenetic risk-predictive tests may thus allow for new opportunities for risk assessment for developing cancer in the future. Since epigenetic changes are presumed to be modifiable, preventive measures, such as lifestyle modification, could be used to reduce the risk of cancer. Moreover, epigenetic markers might be used to monitor the response to risk-reducing interventions. In this article, we address ethical concerns related to personal responsibility raised by epigenetic risk-predictive tests in cancer population screening. Will individuals increasingly be held responsible for their health, that is, will they be held accountable for bad health outcomes? Will they be blamed or subject to moral sanctions? We will illustrate these ethical concerns by means of a Europe-wide research programme that develops an epigenetic risk-predictive test for female cancers. Subsequently, we investigate when we can hold someone responsible for her actions. We argue that the standard conception of personal responsibility does not provide an appropriate framework to address these concerns. A different, prospective account of responsibility meets part of our concerns, that is, concerns about inequality of opportunities, but does not meet all our concerns about personal responsibility. We argue that even if someone is responsible on grounds of a negative and/or prospective account of responsibility, there may be moral and practical reasons to abstain from moral sanctions.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The authors' research is supported by the European Union's Horizon 2020 Programme (H2020/2014-2020) under grant agreement number 634570) and the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO) within the Responsible Innovation (MVI) (grant no. 313-99-332).
Contributors IB and EMB drafted the manuscript and KT, NP, MW and IdB offered substantial contributions to the conception of the work and critically revised it for important intellectual content. Funding The authors’ research is supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme (H2020/2014-2020) under grant agreement number 634570) and the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO) within the Responsible Innovation (MVI) (grant no. 313-99-332).
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