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Washington Post on DNA Forensics

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on April 22nd, 2008

Check out these two recent articles in the Washington Post on DNA forensics, one on the eugenic implications of using genes to predict or explain peoples' behavior and the other on using DNA databases to conduct familial searches. Concerns about eugenics and the criminal justice system draw force from recent history, as the first article explains:

"Genes have had a rocky relationship with justice, dating at least to the early years of the last century, when eugenics laws encouraged forced sterilizations to break the cycle of "inherited criminality." "Shiftlessness, nomadism, pauperism all were assumed to have biological and genetic causes," said Jeffrey R. Botkin, a physician and ethicist at the University of Utah School of Medicine."

Stanford law professor Hank Greely is quoted in the second piece, providing an interesting example of how these developments can impact racial minorities:

"Greely estimates that at least 40 percent of the FBI database is African American, though they make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. That is because in an average year, more than 40 percent of people convicted of felonies in the United States are African American, he said.

If the national database were used for familial searching, he said, and assuming that on average each person whose profile in the database has five first-degree relatives, authorities would be "putting under surveillance" roughly a third of the African American population, compared with about 7.5 percent of the European American population, he said.

"I don't think anybody's going to be falsely convicted," he said. "It's the time, hassle and indignity of being interviewed by the police. How much is that worth? How much does that cost a person? I don't know, but it's not zero."

In the News this Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 18th, 2008

The latest company to offer personal genome scans, Navigenics, opened a store front in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of New York.

In the UK, a provision in the controversial bill to overhaul that nation's oversight of assisted reproductive technologies was altered, so prospective parents could select for deafness during preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Selecting for "serious medical conditions" remains prohibited, but deafness has been removed from that category in the bill.

An international group of stem cell scientists and bioethicists warned politicians "not to block scientific inquiry into subjects such as stem cells and embryo research just because there is a difference of opinion on the ethics or morality of the work."

Inaccuracy and Histrionics in Louisiana

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 17th, 2008

In a too-common occurrence, the media are inaccurately portraying a stem cell bill, and research advocates are exaggerating its potential impact. In Louisiana, HB 370 would prohibit the use of public funds - explicitly including federal dollars sent to the state - for cloning-based research. That such work is not occurring in Louisiana, and that there are no plans to begin, hasn't stopped research advocates from raising a ruckus.

After their protests, an "exception" was inserted into the bill to make it clear that federal funds would be permitted for work on stem cell lines that are eligible for such funding (i.e., created before August 9, 2001). But that exception has no impact, and is irrelevant. The original bill didn't affect those lines anyway: They weren't created via cloning, and the federal government doesn't fund cloning-based stem cell research in the first place.

Nevertheless, the primary newspaper of the state capitol, the Baton Rouge Advocate, says the bill "would impose a Louisiana ban on use of public funds for most embryonic stem-cell research." A scientist claims it will hinder recruitment of other researchers. And a blogger at the liberal MyDD claims the "radical" legislation "prohibits the use of public funds - state or federal - for stem cell research," and states that cloning-based stem cell research "saves lives."

"Premature" would be the most generous description of the claim about saving lives. "Flat-out wrong" is an accurate description of the rest.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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

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