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First One in the Pool...

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on October 17th, 2007

Last month, Biopolitical Times commented on the prominent British judge who proposes that DNA be collected from the country’s entire population – and anyone visiting – as a way to avoid racial genetic discrimination. That post, “Everybody into the Pool,” was followed by another – “They Really Mean EVERYBODY into the Pool” – about the 100,000 profiles already in the UK's criminal databases from children who have never been charged with a crime.

The point, of course, is that in fact not everybody is equally represented in the DNA databases that are rapidly expanding in the United States as well as the UK – or in the courts and the jails. A study by Queens College Professor of Sociology Harry Levine, for example, finds that eight times as many blacks as whites are arrested in New York City for low-level marijuana possession. But government statistics consistently show that marijuana use among blacks is significantly lower than among whites.

At a recent symposium on DNA in law enforcement organized by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, former CGS staffer Tania Simoncelli, now with the Technology and Liberty Project at the ACLU, cited these statistics to support her assertion that “privacy is not the only concern” about DNA databases. She comments:

[L]et’s be very clear about what we’re doing here. If we expand our databanks to arrestees, we are essentially creating a massive government database and databank comprised mostly of people of color.
The symposium transcript is well worth a read. Simoncelli discusses several reasons to be alarmed about the DNA database juggernaut in the U.S. Did you know that ten states and the federal government have decided to collect DNA not just from people convicted of a crime, but also from anyone merely arrested? Did you know that police now get DNA samples by following people around and picking up their cigarette butts and coffee cups?

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after your DNA.

File Under: Gene of the Week

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 15th, 2007

Photo by Sylwia Kapuscinski for The New York Times

In a widely-circulated article, the New York Times recently reports that aversion to new foods (i.e. being a picky eater) is 78% genetic.

Researchers examined the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between 8 and 11 years old and found children’s aversions to trying new foods are mostly inherited.

The message to parents: It’s not your cooking, it’s your genes....

According to the report, 78 percent is genetic and the other 22 percent environmental.

Moving the Goalposts on Hybrids

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 12th, 2007

In recent years, biologists have been advocating the use of various human-animal constructs in their work. They seem to get what they want. In fact, they may now be getting more than they even asked for.

There are different kinds of entities at issue. Chimeras, in which cells from different species are mixed at the organismal level, are used for testing stem cells or, theoretically, producing organs for transplant. In contrast, hybrids mix the DNA of different species at the cellular level. These hybrids can be of the cytoplasmic variety, for which scientists have made a good case. In these, enucleated animal eggs would be used as the target for human nuclear transfer in cloning-based stem cell research as an alternative to scarce and problematic human eggs. 

Until now, it seemed that “true” hybrids, in which human sperm fertilizes an animal egg (or vice versa) were off the table. But recent maneuverings in the United Kingdom illustrates the research community’s insistence that nothing be taken off the table, regardless of actual need. It’s relevant not just for British policy, but also because that nation’s regulatory structure has been held up a model of oversight. Unfortunately, the British model, originally founded on the principle that “There must be some barriers that are not to be crossed, some fixed limits, beyond which people must not be allowed to go,” appears to be unable to say “no” to researchers’ demands.

The current setting is a multi-year process to update the key law regarding human genetic and reproductive technologies. For three years, the Government (i.e. the cabinet), Parliament, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), and interest groups have been issuing reports and holding public consultations. The Government has been cold to hybrids, and Parliamentarycommitteesvocally supportive. In May, the Government conceded that cytoplasmic hybrids could be permitted, under license, but legalization of true hybrids would require an act by the Secretary of State for Health.

In media coverage, researchers reassured the public that the cytoplasmic hybrids would be 99.9% human and only 0.1% nonhuman. Yet at the same time, the research community was pushing for the normalization of true hybrids - despite the fact that no one had any particular reason to create them. A survey [PDF] of scientific groups by the HFEA stated that, “The general view of the organisations we consulted, and the view expressed in the Academy of Medical Sciences' recent report on inter-species embryos, was that currently there is no reason why scientists would want to create human transgenic embryos, true hybrids or human chimera embryos.” And its Scientific and Clinical Advances Group [PDF], containing over a dozen biomedical researchers, concluded that, “that there is no scientific case for true interspecies hybrids.”

On top of that, public opinion ranges from slightly to significantly opposed. In a HFEA poll [PDF], 36% of respondents agreed that true hybrids should be allowed, while 47% disagreed. In its focus groups [PDF], only 9% agreed, while 73% disagreed.

Notwithstanding the absence of both scientific need and public support, research groups countered that a law couldn’t, and shouldn't, distinguish between cytoplasmic and true hybrids. For example, the Academy of Medical Sciences concluded that "The reasons for banning the creation of hybrid embryos for in vitro experimental use, while permitting research involving other types of human embryo incorporating animal material, are not clear to us…." And a representative of the British Medical Association testified, "We have not had any justification for the [Government proposed] exclusion of true hybrids, and it would be interesting to know if there is a reason, but we would say that it should be treated in the same way as the three forms of inter-species embryos that will be allowed and we would rather not say in the legislation that there is one group of hybrids that would not be allowed because we do not believe it could be readily revisited and it might become an essential." Other true hybrid advocates similarly noted that if the concern among the public was crossing the species barrier, then permitting cytoplasmic hybrids had already done so.

Thus, if cytoplasmic and "true" hybrids are legally and morally inseparable, and its agreed that the former should be permitted, thus the latter must be as well. It seems an effective strategy to prevent any prohibitions on research activities, regardless of their actual need, is to convince the public that you are not going to cross a line, and then claim that the line can't really be drawn.

Oprah on Renting Wombs in India: “It’s beautiful”

Posted by Jamie D. Brooks on October 11th, 2007

On Tuesday, an estimated eight million viewers of the Oprah Winfrey Show were informed that the new phenomenon of Americans going to India to hire surrogates on the cheap is not exploitation. Rather, it’s a warm and fuzzy example of “women helping women.” Furthermore, it’s a “confirmation of just how close our countries can be.” In fact, the couple who provided the gametes and the money are “cultural ambassadors” to India, and benefactors of the women whose wombs they rent.

The hour-long segment was anchored by Lisa Ling of ABC's The View and National Geographic Channel’s Explorer, who traveled to the Akansha Fertility Clinic in Anand, India with the featured couple, Jennifer and Kendall. Their story starts out as a familiar one: They depleted their $25,000 of savings in their attempts to have a biological child. But then they discovered that the fertility treatment and surrogacy that cost upwards of $70,000 in the United States can be had in India for about $12,000. So they traveled to India to undergo the in vitro procedures and meet the surrogate, Sangita.

Two months later, Oprah’s cameras film Jennifer, Kendall, and Lisa watching as an ultrasound displays the child’s heartbeats. Jennifer cries tears of happiness; Sangita keeps her face and head covered with a scarf so that her family members won’t learn what she’s doing.

When Lisa asks Jennifer whether she agrees with those who consider arrangements like this one to be exploitation, Jennifer tearfully and indignantly responds, “Sangita and I give each other a life that neither of us could achieve on our own.” Jennifer is referring to the money – approximately $6,000 U.S. – that Sangita and other Indian surrogates earn for womb rental. She is correct in pointing out that this buys them better housing and bigger kitchens; that it’s a sum of money that they “couldn’t have earned in a lifetime.”  

Surrogates, who must be younger than 45 and have at least one living child, are required to stay in a dormitory attached to the clinic for the nine months that they carry the child they will hand over.  In perhaps the most poignant segment of the show, one surrogate weeps because she misses her son back home. Another says that she will find it difficult to give up the baby she is carrying. “It is up to the child to remember us,” she says. “We will remember the child for the rest of our lives.”

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