Do You Have Property Rights Over Your DNA?

from the this-won't-end-well dept

Eriq Gardner has a great and very detailed article over at ABA Journal exploring questions about the legality of collecting someone's DNA and using it. Apparently, right now, there is a hodgepodge of state laws, with more on the way, and a lot of these issues are likely to end up in court. Realistically speaking, this is a privacy issue, but it's being framed by some as a "property rights" issue, specifically with some new legal proposals:
Perhaps it’s not surprising then to see some of the toughest proposed legislation coming from the New England hotbed of genetics research, specifically in Massachusetts and Vermont, where some bold politicians and health policy think tanks introduced in January a Genetic Bill of Rights for citizens, proposing that individuals should have property rights over their own DNA.

Their legislative proposals would go even further than Alaska’s statute. They would not only mandate consent for the collection and use of DNA but also spell out that individuals have a right to privacy with respect to their genetic information. They would also prohibit entities like auto insurers and money lenders from misusing DNA info. The statute recognizes that DNA has “a fair market value” and carves out only limited exceptions for violating someone else’s DNA property rights: those working under judicial order, such as police investigators. Intentional violations of the statute would carry both prison time and civil fines.
I'm actually a bit surprised that supporters of this type of law think that a property rights model makes sense, because it's then easy to counter with the point that DNA that you leave behind is effectively "discarded" property. That is, if you leave behind a cup you drank out of, does it make sense that you still retain a "property right" over the microscopic DNA you left on the cup?

The fears, of course, are not too difficult to imagine. There have been books and movies written about a world with genetic profiling. But does that really justify some of these laws? And, perhaps, the bigger fear might not be laws about what private parties can do, but what law enforcement is already doing -- such as using DNA analysis to implicate family members in certain crimes. And, as the article notes, even if such laws are put in place, does anyone really think it would stop surreptitious DNA collection and analysis?

To be honest, this is one story where I can definitely see and understand both sides, but I do worry when people seek to go too far with laws to protect what they think is really a privacy issue (especially by conveying property rights), where there may not be a real privacy issue at all.

Filed Under: dna, privacy, property rights

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  1. icon
    aldestrawk (profile), 27 Jul 2011 @ 2:54pm

    Re: Property rights in tissue - unforeseen costs

    My feeling is that while it was reasonable for the court to conclude that Moore shouldn't be entitled to any money by applying a tort for property conversion to his lymphocytes, UC shouldn't be allowed to patent that cell line. It is not clear to me though, by glancing at that patent, if the patent covers just the cell line and the molecules it excretes or also the ability to maintain that type of cell.
    Imagine if the HeLa cell line, taken without informed consent from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, was patented. Would all the benefits from widespread research on this line have occurred? Additionally, since HeLa has acted like a weed contaminating many cell lines, would patent considerations complicate all the research that might possibly have, HeLa contaminated, cell lines?

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