Should we be storing the DNA of newborns indefinitely?

Next up in America’s privacy wars when it comes to law enforcement… baby DNA! If that sounds like an odd pairing to you then you might be in my somewhat older age group. Traditionally, hospitals have kept foot impressions of infants but beyond that there isn’t much in your average birth record beyond the name, weight, size and gender of the child. In recent years, however, hospitals across the country have taken to obtaining blood samples and doing DNA testing on infants in an effort to improve their long term health prospects. This unfortunately leads to the default libertarian question of what happens to the blood samples and DNA records after that? (AT&T News)

Newborn screening saves or improves the lives of about 12,000 newborns each year by swiftly identifying therapies they might need, said Jelili Ojodu, director of newborn screening and genetics with the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

But what happens to the dried blood samples on those cards after the testing that’s mandatory in all 50 states is completed has sparked legal battles in some states. Minnesota and Texas have destroyed some 6.4 million samples following lawsuits. And in Indiana, the parents of a 9-year-old suburban Indianapolis girl are seeking the same for up to 2.5 million samples collected over two decades and stored in 600 boxes at a state warehouse.

“Her parents’ main concern is that down the road who knows what could happen with these samples?” said Jonathan Little, an attorney for parents of the girl, identified in court documents only as A.B. Doe.

The article identifies two very different areas of concern over the mass storage of DNA records. One is commercial in nature and could, in theory, pose some concerns. What if certain DNA markers show that a person is more prone to cancer or to Alzheimer’s later in life? If insurance companies got hold of that information might they charge them higher premiums or refuse coverage? That sounds like a stretch to me, but anything is possible in theory I suppose.

The big ticket libertarian item, of course, is the prospect of Big Brother knowing too much about you. (Emphasis added)

“The question is, ‘These cards are being collected for a very specific purpose, and once they have met that purpose what’s the necessity for keeping these blood stains?” said Sheldon Krimsky, acting executive director of the Cambridge-Massachusetts-based Council for Responsible Genetics.

He said law enforcement could also potentially access states’ newborn blood stores to use them to create DNA databases of law-abiding citizens.

This is one area where the big “L” Libertarians and I will always part ways. Not only am I not overly worried about the creation of such a database, I think the potential benefits of it would vastly outweigh the liabilities in terms of privacy with only a few sensible safeguards put in place. Having such a repository should require a court order to access it and such could be provided in a number of scenarios. If there were some major medical breakthrough in genetics in the future wherein people with particular genetic tags might be candidates for a treatment which would prevent them from developing some debilitating or fatal disease it would be incredibly useful to be able to run a search and get that information out to them and their doctors when they might otherwise not even be aware they were at risk. Similar examples could be listed under this category almost endlessly.

In terms of law enforcement, I understand how our Libertarian friends chafe at the idea of anyone from the government knowing anything at all about you but there have to be common sense limits to these restrictions. If someone kidnaps one of your family members but leaves behind some DNA, I’m willing to bet that you’d love to have the police be able to feed it into a database (with a warrant) and get a name, address, photo and model of car that they drive in a matter of hours so they could attempt a rescue. Currently, unless the perpetrator falls into a limited number of career choices or has had previous run-ins with the law, there may be no record of them anywhere.

Yes, I’m aware that some of you have constant nightmares of dystopian hellscapes where the government is peering through that information every hour of the day looking to sniff out malcontents and whisk them away to black op cells in Egypt, but that’s a sad premise to base your life on. A lot more good could be done with this sort of information than evil, and with open government initiatives we’re getting better and better at sniffing out the evil when it does pop up. Demanding that all of these infant DNA records be immediately destroyed is, as I see it, largely just paranoia and we’re turning our backs on a significant potential tool in the ongoing battle against crime in general and terrorism in particular.