Ethics of DNA analysis
Ethics of DNA analysis (Forensic Science)
Because DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) offers so much more information on individuals than either fingerprints or traditional serological evidence, serious concerns have been raised regarding the potential for abuses in the collection, storage, and analysis of DNA samples. At the forefront of these concerns is the conflict between law-enforcement agencies’ legal power to collect evidence and individuals’ rights to privacy and autonomy. In addition, it has been noted that because DNA analysis can reveal many intimate aspects of individuals and their families—including paternity, susceptibility to diseases, and predisposition to genetic anomalies—the information gained through DNA analysis could be used in discriminatory fashion by employers, health care institutions, insurers, and government and educational institutions.
Relative to the use of DNA analysis by forensic scientists, some ethical concerns have been raised regarding quality control in the handling of DNA samples, the reliability of interpretations of DNA analysis results, and access to DNA analysis. Some observers have expressed fears that human error in the analysis of DNA may contribute to the wrongful conviction of persons accused of crimes; it has also been noted that some individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes may be denied access to DNA analysis that could exonerate them.
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Individual Rights and Privacy (Forensic Science)
Many of the concerns that have been expressed about DNA analysis, particularly in the United States, are related to individuals’ desire for privacy and autonomy. Because the information provided by a person’s DNA to a large extent defines that person’s physical being, many people are more concerned about keeping their DNA information private than they are about keeping their general medical information private. Any mandatory legal provision for collecting DNA from the public pool in order to solve crimes is thus met with resistance. Many observers have voiced doubts regarding the ability of law-enforcement authorities to safeguard DNA samples, and many fear the possible misuse of information gained through DNA analysis.
Many objections have also been raised to the forced or coerced collection of DNA samples from all persons considered possible suspects in criminal investigations. It is vital to distinguish coerced or forced submissions of DNA from truly voluntary submissions. Law-enforcement agencies have at times justified the use of “DNA dragnets” in which samples are collected from hundreds or even thousands of “volunteers” in communities where serial crimes have been committed. Such police activities are troubling because they involve the collection of DNA samples from people who are not suspects and who do not provide the samples in a truly voluntary way. In addition, the DNA information...
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Potential Misuses of DNA (Forensic Science)
The United States maintains the largest DNA database in the world, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). The rapid growth of CODIS has prompted many concerns over civil liberties. At first, the DNA profiles of convicted sex offenders constituted the bulk of the material in the local, state, and federal databases that make up CODIS, but many states then expanded to include all felons; some even take DNA samples from all persons arrested, even those who are not convicted. CODIS has expanded over the years to include the DNA profiles of suspects, victims, and many other people who were not originally intended to be included.
Although DNA databases play vital roles in criminal investigations and postconviction reviews, the necessity of solving crimes must be weighed against respect for civil liberties. Observers have noted that the sweeping expansion of DNA databases may lead to dangers of privacy invasion and even racial discrimination. Given that no effective policy or legal provisions are in place in the United States to ensure genetic privacy for those who have never been convicted of any crime, concerns about privacy issues in relation to DNA are legitimate. After a person’s DNA makes its way into CODIS, it remains in that system whether the person is a model citizen or a violent criminal. For this reason, many have argued that the contents of DNA databases must be as limited as possible and that only those who...
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Quality Control and Equal Access (Forensic Science)
Some ethical concerns about DNA analysis center on quality control: in the collection of samples, in the isolation and analysis of DNA, and in the interpretation of results. For each of these stages to be accomplished properly, the persons involved—including detectives, lab technicians, forensic scientists, lawyers, and judges—must have a high level of professional competence. The contamination of a DNA sample, for example, could jeopardize an otherwise strong prosecution case. The miscalculation of the probability of a profile match between evidentiary DNA and that of a suspect may lead to a wrongful conviction. An expert witness’s neglect in presenting laboratory error rate may mislead jurors in one direction or another. To ensure that DNA analyses are carried out and interpreted to a high degree of quality, guidelines must be in place to ensure a standard acceptable error rate in DNA analysis for all laboratories, periodic review and certification of laboratories for forensic DNA analysis, and proper training of personnel, including scientists, police officers, lawyers, and judges.
The issue of equal access to the technology of DNA analysis has been raised by many observers. They have argued that fairness demands that persons who were convicted of crimes before this technology became available should have the opportunity to submit evidence for DNA analysis whenever circumstances warrant a review. The...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Kobilinsky, Lawrence F., Thomas F. Liotti, and Jamel Oeser-Sweat. DNA: Forensic and Legal Applications. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Interscience, 2005. Presents an informative overview of the uses of DNA analysis.
Lazer, David, ed. DNA and the Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. Collection of essays explores the ethical and procedural issues related to DNA evidence.
Rudin, Norah, and Keith Inman. An Introduction to Forensic DNA Analysis. 2d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2002. Provides a good introduction to the use of biological evidence in forensics as well as the history and application of DNA fingerprinting in forensic investigations.
Scheck, Barry, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer. Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution, and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted. New York: Random House, 2000. Describes some of the most prominent and successful cases taken on by Scheck and Neufeld’s Innocence Project, providing comprehensive data on cases of wrongful conviction.
Williams, Robin, and Paul Johnson. “Inclusiveness, Effectiveness, and Intrusiveness: Issues in the Developing Uses of DNA profiling in Support of Criminal Investigations.” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 33, no. 3 (2005): 545-558. Discusses the use of DNA databases in England and Wales and the ethical issues raised by uses such as familial...
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