Montréal, le 3 avril 1999
Numéro 34
  (page 6)
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            Vos commentaires           
 by Ralph Maddocks
          That rather long chemical sounding name, abbreviated to DNA, perhaps came to real public prominence when employed in the abortive O.J. Simpson murder trial a few years ago. Readers may recall the arguments which then raged about the accuracy and probabilities involved in tying an individual to a DNA sample. 
Honey... guest what? 
          Science moves quickly, and the sample sizes now required to make the test, and the time formerly required to make them have been much reduced with concomitant improvements to accuracy. Apart from determining identity in murder cases, DNA is also useful in determining paternity. That maxim of Roman law, in operation for the last 2000 years, which said essentially, « Motherhood  is always clear and certain, paternity is a matter of opinion », is no longer true. As DNA testing has spread from the field of crime to paternal identification, questions can now be answered supported by scientific, genetically fingerprinted fact.  
          In Britain and the United States, DNA testing is marketed on billboards, in magazines and is even available by mail order. Simply swab cotton inside the cheek of the infant and its presumed father, mail it to the lab and wait for results. Although Canada has not yet reached this stage it can only be a matter of time before it does. 
          However, this is something that many academics, physicians, and scientists see as cause for some concern. Invasion of privacy, family disruption, and a blow to human dignity are only a few of the concerns expressed. DNA testing reduces people to substances and violates the fundamental relationship between us, trust. To say nothing of human dignity.  
Testing you to death 
          A Vancouver based firm, Helix Biotech, is said to be the largest DNA testing laboratory in Canada, having gone from 45 tests a year in 1990 to about 300 a month at present. Much of their work being performed on behalf of some court or other seeking to establish paternity for the purposes of child support. There is also another group for whom paternity is important, adopted children who wish to make sure that the biological parent they have traced is indeed their parent. A sub-group consists of resolving the question in some families as to who the father really is. A less tasteful service is the analysis of a person's underwear in order to determine the presence of a member of the opposite sex, a sort of high-tech infidelity test. 
          DNA testing can also be used for predicting the appearance, later in life, of some 4 000 diseases and health conditions; some of which are terminal and many of which are incurable. In the UK and the USA, where for under a thousand dollars such screening tests can be obtained by mail, the results come with a pamphlet explaining how to deal with unpleasant revelations. It seems that few, if any, of these testing laboratories offer any kind of counselling services. Diseases such as Parkinson's and a few equally nasty ones which are genetically triggered and occur later in life can be a source of great concern to the recipient.  
          The psychological damage to a young person who sees his or her future clouded by the apprehension of the disease appearing is unimaginable. Added to these fears would be the question, should that person tell their medical insurance provider? Life insurance companies could well refuse coverage to people diagnosed as being likely to come down with a debilitating disease, even though an incapacitating disease might not strike an individual for many years, if at all. The issue ultimately comes down to the profitability of the insurance companies on the one hand and not discriminating against people on issues over which they have no control. Employers could begin to demand that job applicants undergo gene testing in an attempt to cut down sick leave and early retirement costs. Ethnic and religious groups with a tendency to particular gene disorders could well feel stigmatized. 
          All this is in addition to questions about abortion, human embryo research and research into genes or mutations responsible for certain behavioral traits. Would we want a society in which discrimination takes place on the basis of genetic makeup? Even though many countries do not permit discrimination on the basis of color, religion and gender, the potential for genetic discrimination looms very large. The Human Genome Project, the $1.9 billion global program to map and sequence all human genes, which is supposed to open up a new age of understanding and treatment, may well create a world in which ignorance is preferred  to knowledge. 
Before and after science 
          Of course, governments have not been slow to seize upon the opportunities offered by DNA testing and all servicemen in the US armed forces are compulsorily tested; no more unknown soldiers for Arlington. Law enforcement agencies too are slavering over the possibilities offered by DNA testing and one, in Florida, even tried to persuade the parents of schoolchildren to allow reference samples to be taken in. A project which, in spite of the offer of free ID kits, did not meet with the plaudits of that particular multitude. While the justification offered was to provide identification in the event of the death or disappearance of a child, the obvious conclusion would be that the police would acquire over time a DNA bank of most of the state’s citizenry. A useful tool for solving crime. Unlike fingerprints, DNA cannot be modified with a piece of sandpaper.  
          Like fingerprints, photographs are not perfect identifiers either; we can alter our looks with a good surgeon or a couple of products from the nearest pharmacy. Revelations of a « private » database of driver’s license photos triggered lawsuits throughout the US.  
          US Attorney General Reno recently set a federal commission comprised of « scientists, prosecutors and crime-fighters » to determine the desirability and legality of taking DNA samples of people who are arrested, whether or not they’re convicted! Her argument is that DNA tests can keep people out of prison as readily as they can be put in. In fact some forty prisoners have been set free in the US as a result of DNA testing. There have been one or two cases in Canada too and the tests are no doubt useful in rape cases where the evidence is usually far from clear.  
          In Britain, in the past they have conducted a mass screening of all men in a particular area to find some miscreant, so the idea is not that strange to the British public. The UK Police Superintendents Association now wants the entire population’s DNA stored away in a database for easy access. They could well arrange this, since Britain doesn’t have the protections afforded by a constitution as in Canada or the USA. While the initial reaction of their Home Office was rather cool, the Home Secretary did agree to meet with the head of the Association. 
          A spokesperson for the UK human rights group, Liberty, was reported as saying: « This proposal represents part of a drift towards policing by coercion. » More like a landslide it seems to me. 
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