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US set to swell its criminal DNA database

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on April 17th, 2008


The United States is about to launch a major expansion of its forensic DNA database, the Washington Post reports today on its front page.

The proposal would allow the FBI, the Border Patrol, and other federal authorities to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested of a federal crime - even if they're not charged or convicted. This includes people detained for immigration violations, however briefly.

How many new DNA samples are we talking about? An official estimate puts the number at 1.2 million each year. Of those, about 140,000 would be people arrested for federal crimes; many of the rest would be people detained for being in the country illegally. The US currently has the largest forensic DNA database in the world, with almost 6 million samples.

"Innocent people don't belong in a so-called criminal database. We're crossing a line," said Tania Simoncelli, of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project (and former CGS staffer). Simoncelli warned that "if the samples are kept, they could one day be analyzed for sensitive information such as diseases and ancestry."

Civil rights and racial justice advocates have been warning for years [1, 2] that racial biases in the police and criminal justice systems mean that forensic databases will disproportionately target people of color.

Immigration rights advocates are also alarmed, pointing out that "most illegal immigrants are detained for administrative violations, not federal crimes." The new policy "casts them all as criminals," said the National Lawyers Guild's Paromita Shah.

The Washington Post article is accumulating a storm of comments; their tone tends heavily toward outrage.

Previously on Biopolitical Times





Cloning and Stem Cells: A Fake, a Red Herring, and a Surprise

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 15th, 2008


Hwang Woo Suk
Hwang Woo Suk

I ran across three brief, interesting items regarding cloning and stem cell research yesterday. First, the infamous embezzler, plagiarizer, and disgraced stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk is trying to resume human embryonic stem cell research in South Korea, but that country's health ministry is delaying a decision on whether to give permission. The brief item from the AP, though, implied he is aiming for cloning-based stem cell research:

The Health Ministry said Monday it will wait until August to decide whether to approve Hwang's request for permission to carry out research on embryonic stem cells using human eggs, citing his ongoing trial. [emphasis mine]
Second, in a move for which the word "ironic" is too weak, one of the leading proponents of cloning-based stem cell research warned that the new alternative of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) will lead the world closer to reproductive cloning, which - he tells us -  is just unacceptable. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, which has invested heavily in somatic cell nuclear transfer, seems to be on something of a campaign:
“In addition to the great therapeutic promise demonstrated by this technology, the same technology opens a whole new can of worms,” Dr Lanza tells the Independent.

“Cloning isn’t here now, but with this new technique we have the technology that might be able to actually produce a child. If this was applied to humans it would be enormously troublesome,” Dr Lanza tells the Telegraph.

“It raises the same issues as reproductive cloning and although the technology for reproductive cloning in humans doesn’t exist, with this breakthrough we now have a working technology whereby anyone, young or old, fertile or infertile, straight or gay can pass on their genes to a child by using just a few skin cells....

“It is quite possible that the real legacy of this whole new programming technology is that it could introduce the era of designer babies.”
This is specious, coming from a man who has dedicated much of his professional life to creating clonal human embryos via the same technique that has led to reproductive clones in over a dozen mammalian species. If any method will lead to human reproductive cloning and designer babies, it is somatic cell nuclear transfer, not iPS. His comments were a follow-up to his letter to Science published last December:
[W]hile the technology to clone a human being does not currently exist, the ability to use iPS cells to make a chimeric human (i.e., using iPS cells to contribute to an embryo that would be a chimera) may be much closer to reality.

Considering the immense power of this technology, it is imperative that an effort is made by scientists and governments to understand the ramifications of this new breakthrough and to ensure that it is used in an ethically responsible way for the benefit and progress of humanity.
Funny, I never heard him issue such warnings regarding somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Finally, while browsing though that issue of Science, I ran across a brief essay on iPS and cloning-based stem cell research by Jose Cibelli, who is both Lanza's former colleague at ACT and a collaborator with Hwang on one of his fraudulent papers in Science. In a pleasant surprise, Cibelli asks, in light of the iPS developments,
Is human therapeutic cloning no longer needed? The short answer is no, but it is likely a matter of time until all the hypothetical advantages of therapeutic cloning will be implemented with induced pluripotent stem cells. More importantly, the controversial issues (ethical and technical) specific to human therapeutic cloning may well be left behind along with the procedure itself, a refreshing change for the field, indeed.

HT to Secondhand Smoke for the Lanza item. 

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





CGS debates libertarian bioethicist Ronald Green

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on April 14th, 2008


In a recent Washington Post commentary, Dartmouth ethicist Ronald Green advocates everything from designer babies to human reproductive cloning. On Tuesday, CGS' Richard Hayes and Marcy Darnovsky will give their take on these matters. Hayes' commentary will be posted in the Outlook section of the Washington Post's website; Darnovsky will discuss the issues with Green on NPR's Talk of the Nation. (11 am Pacific / 2 pm Eastern)

Updates: Richard's article is now online at the Washington Post website. Listen to Marcy at Talk of the Nation [MP3].





Immortality breakthrough! Read all about it!

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on April 14th, 2008


Every once in a while I check to see what's new with the transhumanists, that strange bunch of guys (and a few gals) who stump for the End of Humanity As We Know It. What caught my eye this time was George Dvorsky's recent piece called "Eight tips to dramatically improve your chances of living forever."

Transhumanists, for those who haven't stumbled across them, want to use genetic engineering, nanotech robots, neural interfaces with computers, and other ultra-tech gizmos to produce what they variously call "posthumanity" and "homo perfectus."

One core transhumanist come-on - in fact, the very first plank of "The Transhumanist Declaration" - is "redesigning the human condition" so as to banish aging. Transhumanists talk about "extreme longevity" and "radical life extension." More than a few believe that technology-enabled immortality is just around the corner. For those of us alive today, they say, the trick is to hang on long enough for the rapture - oops, I mean "longevity escape velocity."

Okay, it's silly. But given their aspirations, you'd expect the transhumanists to have some exceptional insights into staying healthy and hale. So it was with a bit of eagerness - I admit it - that I clicked to see the list.

And now, without further ado - drum roll - here's tip number one: Eat your fruits and veggies.

Tip number two: Avoid sodas and chips.

Other radical advice includes wearing your seatbelt and getting plenty of exercise.

To be fair, there are several hints unique to transhumanism. Tip number seven: send us money. And, tip number eight, just in case all of the above doesn't work: Freeze your head. Helpfully, Dvorsky includes links to the websites of two cryogenics companies.

The punch line to this one? "And they lived happily ever after."




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