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. identicon
    Scott Templeman, 27 Jul 2011 @ 11:05am

    Mixed Feelings

    Michael Crichton touched on this messy issue in his last (while alive) novel Next, and really makes the reader see all the angles. I think DNA patents shouldn't exist at all regardless of the species, genus, etc., because no one outside of a major deity can take credit for evolution or the miracle of life (cater to your personal beliefs). Regarding particular breeds of plants, animals, etc, I do think there should some set of incentives to keep master breeders from getting years of trial and error and hard work motivated.

    However, I don't think DNA should be collected and used from humans without consent either (it gets done in incredibly sneaky and underhanded ways). A key example: CIA hosting fake vaccination drives to steal Pakistani DNA in the hunt for Bin Laden. Ends did not justify the means. Furthermore, an individual shouldn't find out that some of their genes got patented by a biotech firm they had never heard of, let alone gave permission to take DNA.

    This is a hugely messy issue, with no easy answers. I highly recommend Crichton's book (and be sure to read the epilogue, the guy was a decade ahead of society on this one).

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