In the dystopic film, Gattaca,
Ethan Hawke plays a man in a world where genetic testing and engineering
run amok. Children’s DNA is tested at birth and their genetic makeup used
by the government and businesses to determine what sort of job they will
hold and the person they will marry. Just a scary fantasy, right? Maybe,
but Michigan is taking a giant step towards making some parts of that
fictional future come true.
Beginning in 1965 Michigan required
blood samples to be taken from all newborns. The samples were handed over
to the state for genetic testing. Like many such laws, this one was passed
to “protect” children — the blood samples were screened for treatable
genetic disorders such as hypothyroidism. Although the state claims to
be looking out for children, parents aren’t informed of the procedure
— my wife and I learned about the law from newspaper reports about the
law not from the Michigan hospital which took our daughter’s DNA on behalf
of the state.
In 1983, the Michigan legislature
passed a law requiring the state to keep the blood samples on file, but
didn’t specify for how long. State officials claimed that for liability
purposes it needed to keep the blood samples until the children turned
21, at which time the samples would be destroyed. The first wave of children
targeted by the law will turn 21 in 2003. As that date gets closer, however,
the state is already concocting new justifications for keep the samples
indefinitely and is already putting the samples to use in ways that should
frighten anyone concerned with fundamental civil liberties.
A privacy commission set up
by Michigan’s Republican governor, John Engler, recently issued a proposal
that the state should maintain the DNA samples literally forever. The
privacy commission (which seems rather unconcerned with people’s privacy
concerns), notes that DNA samples have already been instrumental in solving
crimes. In several high profile cases, DNA samples of children involved
in kidnapping and murder cases have been used to identify the victims
and the criminals who preyed on them. Police use of the DNA samples in
such cases currently requires parental consent, but it doesnÂ’t any sort
of court order. The privacy commission believes that status quo should
At each step of the way, the
state has pushed the boundaries. When it started taking DNA samples and
testing them in the 1960s it could have made the program voluntary —
large numbers of Michigan citizens probably would have allowed the state
to pay for genetic tests of their children, though clearly some would
have opted out. Similarly, the state could make the retention of the records
voluntary. It could allow parents the choice of whether or not to maintain
their children’s DNA for forensic use and it could give the children of
such parents the choice of whether or not to have the DNA samples destroyed
when they reach 18.
But of course the state doesn’t
do this because the argument at each stage is that the mandate is for
the greater good — it’s the government looking out for the poor defenseless
Over time, though, the state
will inevitably continue to push the envelope and expand police access
to the DNA samples to promote the common good. Michigan cities are already
on the cutting edge of questionable police use of DNA.
In 1994, for example, Ann
Arbor, Michigan, was plague by a serial killer. Police suspected the killer
was an African American and knew some of his general habits but had little
else to go on. So they forced 160 African American men to submit to “voluntary”
DNA testing to exclude themselves as suspects in the killings. The tests
were voluntary in the same way that getting arrested is voluntary — those
who refused to give DNA often received police visits at work or had police
stop them on buses or on the street.
Blair Shelton was one of the
men who gave his DNA sample only after police harassment at his workplace.
Like all 160 men, Shelton was excluded as a suspect. The police eventually
caught the serial killer, but without any help from the DNA dragnet.
The nightmare was only beginning
for Shelton, however. Even though another man was convicted of the murders
and the DNA sample excluded him from being connected to the crime, the
Michigan State Police insisted they had to keep his DNA sample on hold
indefinitely. First the prosecutor claimed they had to keep the blood
sample on file until the convicted killer exhausted his appeals. The prosecutor
actually expected people to believe that if DNA samples of someone who
had nothing to do with the crime were destroyed, the real killer’s conviction
could be overturned. When that argument didn’t fly, the police argued
that if their crime lab destroyed the samples they might lose their accreditation!
Shelton had to sue and his
case spent several years in the courts. Finally in 1997 the Michigan Supreme
Court ordered the state police to destroy all blood samples they had taken
from suspects for the purpose of DNA testing. State police Capt. Richard
Lowthian actually told the Detroit News, “It’s a monumental change in
the way we operate. When we eliminate someone as a suspect, were’ going
to immediately destroy the records. We have no choice.”
But given the choice, Lowthian
clearly would have liked to maintain the records. And it is a matter of
time before the police begin lobbying the legislature to overturn the
Supreme Court’s ruling. All it will take will be a single high profile
murder or rape and police suggestion that if they had just maintained
their DNA samples, they could have cracked the case quickly.
This is, after all, how things
have gone in Europe. In many European countries widespread DNA testing
has become an all purpose tool for police. In a 1997 case in France, for
example, a judge ordered every man in the village of Plein-Fougeres to
undergo “voluntary” DNA tests in hopes of finding the murderer of 13-year-old
Caroline Dickinson who was raped and strangled while on a school trip
in the area in 1996.
In Great Britain, authorities
were on the verge of ordering 7,500 truck drivers to undergo DNA testing
after the murder of a visiting French student. Before the authorities
could put their plan into action, however, the killer was apprehended.
In fact in the United Kingdom DNA is routinely taken from criminal suspects
and stored in a national database. Of course British officials reassure
the public that the innocent have nothing to fear.
Police officials in the United
States look at such provisions and begin salivating. Apparently in agreement
with Michigan authorities, New York City Police Commissioner made headlines
when he called for maintaining a database of DNA sample from everyone
arrested in New York.
So pardon me if I’m a bit skeptical
when Michigan tells me that they’re only interested in protecting my daughter
by keeping her DNA on file indefinitely.