le 3 avril 1999
MUSINGS BY MADDOCKS
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
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
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
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
de Ralph Maddocks