Archive for the ‘Genetics’ Category

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Bioethics, statistics and the truth.

September 18, 2007

So a team of bioethicists at the Nuffield Council feel that the profiles of the innocent should not be retained on the DNA database. The Home Office response? Reel off a few statistics – they’re not accurate of course but who is going to check? Not the BBC or the Guardian. Technoscream does their job for them. This is the place for information you can trust.

Today’s report ‘The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues’ is a detailed study, and serves as an excellent guide to the many ethical and policy issues surrounding the database. The initial Home Office response, which is to quote statistics relating to the crimes apparently solved (note that the numbers refer to linkage of samples as opposed to convictions) is fairly predictable. Unfortunately they are also wrong. The statistics are taken directly from page 36 of their own report, linked previously on technoscream, and for the most part are accurately quoted. However, the number of crimes involved, which is fairly crucial, is actually 4000 rather than the 14000 quoted on the website of the BBC and the Guardian. Assuming that this is a misquote by the Home Office rather than the two journalists it does highlight the benefit of checking the facts. Remember this next time you hear an argument about the relative merits of amateur and professional content providers.

So one-nil to the bloggers. But the more important debate relates to the struggle between the technostate and the ethical and political arguments ranged against it. It is de rigeur for any technological development on this scale to bring a bioethicist on board at some stage, and there are plenty of people producing reports such as this; although not always of such a high quality. It has become a growing sub-industry within academia. There is definitely a danger of the inclusion of a bioethics angle adding a veneer of respectability and responsibility, much like the meaningless ‘carbon offsetting’ doing the rounds at the moment.

So will reports such as this have any impact? The answer probably lies with you and me.

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DNA Nation. Only 56 million to go…

September 15, 2007

Should all UK citizens be on the DNA database? This is the recently voiced opinion of senior judge Lord Justice Sedley who thinks it would solve the racially biased nature of the present system. Destroying the database would do the same thing of course, but the noble Lord doesn’t seem to have considered that option.

To many (I would hope, most) people this brings up nightmarish visions of some Orwellian dystopia. But why is it that it raises so little controversy in this country? We seem to have a particular capacity for sleepwalking towards a citizen-state relationship that has little regard for the individual. As always with this approach (cf. cctv) it is the thin end of a very large wedge. Our current leaders stress that they have no plans to follow the Lord’s advice. But nor do they have any plans to halt the relentless creep of this technology to cover an increasing proportion of our society. Already it has the DNA record of over 4 million citizens – the largest in the world.

The gradual and insidious expansion of these powers can already be seen. Initially the database held information on those convicted, samples taken from anyone else had to be destroyed. Subsequent extension to police powers means that anybody arrested for a recordable offence now has their sample retained. Between April 2004 and March 2006 this resulted in 600,000 additional samples being obtained – equivalent to 1% of the UK population.

What about future governments – what plans will they have? The only thing we can confidently predict is that they will have the tools and framework (political and cultural complacency) to do pretty much what they choose.

Coincidentally, something else the UK leads the world in, is our success in ensuring that newborn children are given the heel prick blood test, with almost 100% coverage. This is in order to test for a small number of relatively rare conditions. It is also used for carrying out epidemiological studies, including routine monitoring for HIV antibodies in the population. The blood spots are stored on Guthrie cards, which apparently have excellent longevity potential – currently they are kept for ‘at least five years’. This is not to suggest that the current testing system represents some form of conspiracy. It simply highlights a potential future risk, which becomes ever more likely as technology improves – and society sleeps.