updated 5/21/2008 2:41:56 PM ET 2008-05-21T18:41:56

The new law forbids employers and insurance companies from denying employment, promotions or health coverage to people when genetic tests show they have a predisposition to cancer, heart disease or other ailments.

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"It protects our citizens from having our genetic information misused," the president said.

Sponsors of the legislation call it a groundbreaking protection of civil rights. About a dozen of them gathered in the Oval Office as Bush signed the bill, but not Sen. Edward Kennedy, to whom the president paid particular tribute. Kennedy, who learned this week he has a malignant brain tumor, has called the genetic anti-discrimination bill "the first major new civil rights bill of the new century."

People today have far more information about their hereditary disposition to crippling afflictions. Bill sponsors said that has increased the likelihood that insurers or employers might deny people work or insurance to avoid costly risks.

"This is a tremendous victory for every American not born with perfect genes — which means it's a victory for every single one us," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., one of the bill's key sponsors. "Since all of us are predisposed to at least a few genetic-based disorders, we are all potential victims of genetic discrimination."

Genetic tests look for alterations in a person's genes, and abnormal results can mean that someone has an inherited disorder. The tests look for signs of a disease or disorder in DNA taken from a person's blood, body fluids or tissues.

Researchers have supported the bill because Americans have been refusing to take genetic tests or have been using false names and paying cash because they didn't want the information used against them by their employer or insurance company.

The new law prohibits health insurance companies from using genetic data to set premiums or determine enrollment eligibility.

Federal law already bans discrimination by race and gender.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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