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abstract Is genetic information of special ethical significance? Does it require special regulation? There is considerable contemporary debate about this question (the ‘genetic exceptionalism’ debate). ‘Genetic information’ is an ambiguous term and, as an aid to avoiding conflation in the genetic exceptionalism debate, a detailed account is given of just how and why ‘genetic information’ is ambiguous. Whilst ambiguity is a ubiquitous problem of communication, it is suggested that ‘genetic information’ is ambiguous in a particular way, one that gives rise to the problem of ‘significance creep’ (i.e., where claims about the significance of certain kinds of genetic information in one context influence our thinking about the significance of other kinds of genetic information in other contexts).

A contextual and contrastive methodology is proposed: evaluating the significance of genetic information requires us to be sensitive to the polysemy of ‘genetic information’ across contexts and then examine the contrast in significance (if any) of genetic, as opposed to nongenetic, information within contexts. This, in turn, suggests that a proper solution to the regulatory question requires us to pay more attention to how and why information, and its acquisition, possession and use, come to be of ethical significance.