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More From the Los Angeles Times on DNA Databases

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on July 22nd, 2008

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times published another article on what has become an intriguing series questioning the long held belief that matches made in DNA databases uniquely identify perpetrators with an extraordinarily high level of certainty – often expressed to juries as one in several billion. 

This installment draws attention to the efforts taken by the FBI to keep such scrutiny under wraps through a variety of arguments and tactics designed to maintain DNA forensics’ presumption of infallibility. This is largely being done by limiting the exposure of federal and state databases to outside researchers and attorneys trying to figure out the likelihood that two people might share the same genetic profile and thus the possibility that these technologies may be unwittingly used to convict innocent people. While much research remains to be done, one thing is certain: forensic science cannot be credible unless its methodologies and assumptions are open to independent review. 

Click here for the LA Times’ previous installment on this topic.

Public interest groups step up challenges to sex selection in India

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on July 21st, 2008

How low can skewed sex ratios go? According to Disappearing Daughters, a report by ActionAid and the International Development Research Centre, there are now just 300 girls under the age of six for every 1000 boys in some high-caste urban areas of Punjab, India.

The situation has continued to worsen in spite of public information campaigns and a 1994 Indian law that prohibits prenatal sex determination and sex-selective abortion. Disappearing Daughters reports that some medical professionals who routinely violate the ban say that their participation in these practices is a "social duty" because the girls would face discrimination all their lives.

The report also chronicles deaths of girls and female babies through neglect and mistreatment. According to ActionAid's Laura Turquet, "The real horror of the situation is that for women, avoiding having daughters is a rational choice. But for wider society, it's creating an appalling and desperate state of affairs."

The strength of "son preference" in India and other countries is also behind the recently announced IVF-assisted birth of twins - including one boy - to an Indian woman whose age is estimated as 70. "At last we have a son and heir," the woman's 77-year-old husband said.

Disappearing Daughters made the front page of The Telegraph, Calcutta's largest English daily newspaper, and was reported in dozens of other publications in India and around the world. But it appears not to have been picked up by a single U.S. newspaper.

Developments that originate in the U.S. are nonetheless important drivers of sex selection in India and other parts of the world. Scores of thousands of specially designed low-cost ultrasound machines, used for early sex determination throughout India, are manufactured by General Electric. And websites for U.S. companies advertise offer at-home sex determination kits to pregnant women. Voluntary Health Association, a Punjab non-governmental organization, has asked the state Supreme Court to block the website of the Baby Gender Mentor test, whose maker is the target of several ongoing investigations and class action lawsuits for misleading marketing claims, fraud, and other violations.

The authors of Disappearing Daughters conclude that “the rise of sex-selective abortions and neglect of girls is simply the latest manifestation of entrenched gender discrimination, which denies women and girls their most basic rights.” They call for “sustained action on many fronts,” without which, they say, “millions more women will go missing in India.”

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

In the News this Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on July 17th, 2008

­ Contr­oversial biotech company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) may be closing shop soon due to a lack of funds.

A British tabloid ran a piece portraying the rising use of egg freezing by single professional women in their 30's as generally unproblematic.

The Uttar Pradesh state government has decided to review the poor implementation of India's law prohibiting sex selection.­

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown postponed until autumn the vote on the bill to overhaul the oversight of assisted reproduction and embryo research.

You can stay up-to-date with the CGS newswire, also available via our RSS feeds­.

Digging Themselves a Hole

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on July 15th, 2008

from Flickr Creative Commons user ratterrell

In the wake of new methods of deriving fully potent stem cells without destroying embryos, researchers and advocates appear to be falling into two camps. One group not only is open to cellular reprogramming (also known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS), but also praises its potential. Although they support and sometimes practice embryonic stem cell research, some also recognize concerns about the moral status of the embryo, even if they don't share these concerns.

The other group of embryonic stem cell researchers and advocates, however, seems to feel threatened by the new method. After all, many of them owe their positions of authority, prominence, and funding to the ongoing controversy and political stalemate. A recent statement from the governing board of the California stem cell research program indicates it is among this latter camp.

The letter describes the board's opposition to a state Senate bill that would slightly modify the law governing the agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Proposition 71 [PDF], which created the CIRM, calls for the state agency to prioritize stem cell research that the federal government neglects. However, it can fund any biomedical research if a two-thirds supermajority of its grants review working group approves. The current Senate bill would lower that bar to a simple majority.

This would not restrict the CIRM in any way. If anything, the bill simply gives the CIRM more flexibility. Considering that the grants working group generally operates by consensus, that the governing board must approve all grants, and that the CIRM currently generously supports non-embryonic stem cell research, the amendment would have zero practical impact.

Nevertheless, the board worked itself into histrionics over any concession to the development of alternatives:

[T]he proposed amendment to Proposition 71 would send the wrong message to Californians and to the nation at large. It would also thwart the will of the more than seven million Californians who voted for Proposition 71 in order to address the federal funding gap for human embryonic stem cell research, a gap that continues to exist to this day. By removing the two-thirds vote requirement, the amendment would undermine the very purpose of Proposition 71 – to provide a priority for funding human embryonic stem cell research. [Italics mine]

Embryonic stem cell research is a means, not an end. The goal is to reduce human suffering. If this can be done as well - or potentially better - with a method that does not antagonize a large portion of the population - even if I do not share their concerns - then all the better.

Some embryonic stem cell research advocates seem to be affected by a bunker mentality. Unfortunately, they are creating the impression that they are now more focused on belittling alternatives than on developing therapies. Rhetorically, they are digging themselves into an ever deeper hole.

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