Gattaca: The Documentary

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
be maintained.

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
children.

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.

India, Poland Good Examples of What Not to Do

India and Poland recently made world news with protests in both countries over
food prices. Both nations, though publicly committing themselves to move away
from socialist-style economies continue to heavily subsidize agriculture as
well as set prices for food.

In Poland, farmers held strikes and set up roadblocks to demand higher prices
for food. Poland is reforming and privatizing is state-run enterprises as it
heads toward European Union membership. Unfortunately, decades of communist
mismanagement of the agricultural sector mean Polish farmers aren’t even
close to being competitive with other European growers, and they fear being
put out of business by cheaper imports from other EU nations.

The farmers solution? Force Polish government (and thereby consumers) to purchase
food from farmers at an extremely high price in order to protect Polish farmers
from competition. The Polish government seems likely to go along with this nonsense.

This is a disastrous policy for several reasons. First, contrary to the Associated
Press’ Andrzej Stylinski who wrote the protests “illustrate that
many are worried about tougher competition that threatens living standards,”
if allowed to flourish agricultural competition will enhance Polish living standards.
Although farmers will experience some short-term financial problems, this would
be more than made up by the benefits to the entire nation of lower food prices.

Second, such subsidies have proven to be long-term albatrosses around the
neck of consumers wherever they have been implemented. The political pressure
which creates them also makes it very difficult to ever remove them, and as
a result once large subsidies are in place the impetus to modernize and become
competitive is lost. Even in the United States, which has a comparatively free
market system, agricultural subsidies passed under emergency conditions or to
address very specific, short-term problems have remained in place decades after
they served any purpose other than enhancing farmers’ bottom lines at
the expense of consumers.

India has a similar problem – after protests it announced it was lowering
announced price hikes on wheat and rice available at government-run ration stores
that serve over 300 million poor Indians. The government buys commodities such
as wheat and rice and then turns around and sells the commodities at a much
lower price in the stores.

Again, such subsidies distort the information that agricultural markets need
to operate efficiently. Since neither the farmers nor the consumers receive
or pay market prices, the farmers have no incentive to be more competitive and
consumers have no incentive to seek out more competitive producers.

The result of such systems can be seen in India which experienced a poor summer
crop and as a result has seen severe shortages of some commodities such as onions.
India’s vast system of subsidies only exacerbates such naturally occurring
problems and magnifies their effect as has happened with the onion shortage.

Sources:

Polish farmers bow to government pressure, suspend protests for higher prices.
Andrzej Stylinski, Associated Press, February 4, 1999.

India lowers wheat, rice prices under pressure. Associated Press, February
2, 1999.

Gas Prices Hit Another All-Time Low in the United States

Gasoline prices in the United States reached an all-time inflation-adjusted
low in February, dropping to less than $1 per gallon nationwide. The average
cost of gasoline for all grades and including taxes reached 99.8 cents per gallon
on February 18 according to the Lundberg Survey of 10,000 gas stations nationwide.

After 18 months of perpetually declining prices, however, gas prices might
soon begin to inch upwards. “The price cutting is faster and deeper than it’s
been so far this year, but it is probably fizzing out,” Trilby Lundberg
told the Associated Press. “Behind the average price fall are a few lonely
no-change (prices) or price hikes here and there, from which I infer that retailers
and their suppliers can’t take it anymore.”

Add increased demand in the spring along with pollution control measures that
will likely add to the cost of gas, and American consumers will likely see an
upward correction over the next few months.

So much for those who 3 years ago were predicting an imminent oil shortage
and massive price hikes.

Source:

Gas prices dip to less than $1. Associated Press, February 21, 1999.

Hillary Clinton Denounces Forced Family Planning at Hague Forum

“Today I hope we can agree first and foremost that government has no place
in the personal decisions a woman makes about whether to bring a child into the
world,” U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told the delegates at the
Hague Forum. The Hague Forum is a meeting of government and non-government representatives
discussing the progress the world has made on population issues since 1994s UN
Conference on Population in Cairo, Egypt.

When it comes to family size, “that is a decision that should be made
freely and responsibly without government coercion,” Clinton said.

The Hague Forum produced the usual round of commentary about overpopulation.
The Boston Globe, for example, followed Paul Ehrlich’s lead with its editorial,
“A population Bomb.” World population will continue to boom, despite
the ongoing decline in total fertility rates, unless the United States increases
its family planning assistance to developing nations.

On the other side were conservatives such as Jay Ambrose who noted “Lester
Brown of the World Watch Institute is still watching and still announcing how
close we all have come to endless midnight, though … statistics still
show human welfare improving virtually any direction you look.”

There might be some middle ground here, though. Clinton, the Globe and Ambrose
all agreed that increasing the status and health options of women is of fundamental
importance for the 21st century.

Sources:

Hillary Clinton urges an end to forced family planning. Mike Corder, Associated
Press, February 9, 1999.

Population summit. Jay Ambrose, Scripps Howard News Service, February 9, 1999.

A population time bomb. Boston Globe, February 8, 1999.

Usual Suspects Attack Americans for Medical Progress over Xenotransplantation

As animal rights activists
and extremist environmental groups gear up to seek an outright ban on
the transplantation of organs from non-human animals to humans, Americans for Medical Progress‘s Jacquie Calnan wrote an excellent, widely published
op-ed on the importance of pursuing research on xenotransplantation and
similar technologies. She and AMP were subsequently attacked in a release
by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace and
others.

Calnan’s op-ed, “Payton’s
hope” (available at http://amprogress.org/news/payton.htm) highlighted the problems of former Chicago Bear running back Walter
Payton, who recently announced he has a rare liver disease and may die
within two years if he does not receive a transplant.

As Calnan noted in her op-ed,
although there are 12,000 people on the waiting list for livers, only
about 4,000 such transplants are performed each year. In 1997 more than
1,000 people died while waiting for a matching liver. Calnan’s editorial
did an excellent job of highlighting animal rights hypocrisy, which is
why I suspect it was so quickly attacked. She repeated PETA celebrity
spokesman Bill Maher‘s recent quote to US Magazine that: “To those
people who say, ‘My father is alive because of animal experimentation,’
I say ‘Yeah, well, good for you. This dog died so your father could live.’
Sorry, but I am just not behind that kind of trade off.” Someone
should send Maher a thank you note for so succinctly summing up the animal
rights philosophy.

Calnan mentioned the newly
developed device I mentioned a couple weeks ago that uses pig cells to
help keep some people alive while waiting transplants. The fact is this
technology is here today and it is already saving lives, so the animal
rights and extreme environmental activists have to fall back on two claims
to discredit the technology.

The first is that the risk
of passing diseases from non-humans to humans is too high. Animal rights
activists have released claim after claim trying to make this point, but
most of the more serious ones have later turned out to be baseless. On
the other hand, like any other thing human beings do, there is always
some risk associated with it – the risk of some new deadly disease crossing
from non-humans to humans will never be zero.

But if our society was that
risk-averse no pharmaceutical drugs or medical technology would ever be
approved since the risk of a calamity from any new technology is never
zero. If this sort of principle actually guided medical technology, certainly
technologies that we take for granted, such as vaccination, would never
have been allowed since the potential risks were only poorly known at best.

The second claim is that there
are more than enough organ donors to go around. At the end of her article,
Calnan ask for more people to become organ donors, which is a reasonable
position, but the critics of xenotransplantation seem to assume that those
organ donors are here today. A recent press release from the Boston-based
Campaign for Responsible Transplantation claimed, for example, that Xenotransplantation
advocates “use statistics and emotion to make their case … some 3,000
transplant patients die each year on in the U.S. … [but a ] US General
Accounting Office report … reveals a potential organ donor pool of 150,000
people. This is in stark contrast to previous estimates of 5,000 to 29,000
people annually … if these organs are secured, it would solve the national
organ shortage, and completely eliminate the need for animal organ transplants.”

As is the typical modus operandi with
these groups, however, this last claim is a distortion. The GAO report
was written to explore different methods of evaluating the performance
of Organ Procurement Organizations, who are assigned the task of procuring
organs and getting them into the organ sharing network. In order to do
that sort of evaluation, the GAO wanted a baseline of the upper bound of
eligible organ donors, which it estimated at 147,000 in 1994 using a technique
to estimate actual deaths and then adjust the figures to determine how
many of those deaths would have had harvestable organs.

The interesting thing is that
in the very next paragraph after giving this estimate, the GAO notes the
limits of counting potential organs this way, “we found that both
the death and adjusted-death measures [which are the source of the 147,000
figure] have drawbacks that limit their usefulness, however, including
lack of timely data and inability to identify those deaths suitable for
use in organ donation.”

First, this explicitly concedes
that the 147,000 figure was obtained using a method that the GAO admits
has an “inability to identify those deaths suitable for use in organ
donation,” which is the crux of the problem with human organ donation
itself. If it was too expensive and time consuming for the GAO to go back
four years and decide how many people were eligible organ donors,
imagine the difficulty in trying to harvest those organs on the spot.

It is one thing to look back
several years later and say there were say 40,000 automobile deaths and
of those 6,000 were potential organ donors. It is another thing to be
in place to actually obtain those organs (a severe problem in organ donation
is that even among those who have signed organ donor cards and are good candidates
to donate organs, often the organs are no longer usable by the time doctors
are aware of the potential donor or get permission from family members
to proceed. This is a situation that is unlikely to change significantly
in the near future).

In addition, the CRT release
failed to note that the number organ donors has increased over the last
few years – but the number of people eligible for organ donation has increased
even faster. I suppose if PETA had its way, this wouldn’t be a problem
since there would be no animal research and fewer people would be transplant
candidates since the medical knowledge to save their lives simply wouldn’t
exist, but barring this it seems clear that future advances in medical
science are going to continue to drive the demand for organ donation at
a much faster rate than the increase in donated organs.

If anything the GAO report
on the failures of Organ Procurement Organizations to obtain more organs
is evidence of just how difficult it is going to be to increase the level
of organ donation, and further emphasizes why xenotransplantation and
similar technologies will likely play a key role in the 21st century – provided animal rights activists aren’t given the chance to
halt this important advance.

Animal activists whine about America’s Most Wanted

Fox TV’s America’s Most
Wanted
earned the wrath of animal rights activists for highlighting
two Animal Liberation Front terrorists on its February 6, 1999 show. The
show featured |Adam Peace| and |James Blackmon|, both of Utah, wanted
for their involvement in ALF bombings.

Peace, 21, allegedly participated
in the March 11, 1997 bombing of the Fur Breeders Co-Op in Salt Lake,
Utah, that caused over $700,000 in damage. Peace is one of the activists
apparently implicated by Josh Ellerman, who is currently serving 7 years
in jail for his role in that bombing.

Blackmon, 23, is also wanted for
allegedly participating in the Fur Breeders Co-op bombing. In addition,
Blackmon is wanted for a July 17, 1996, break-in at a mink farm in Utah
which did $200,000 in damage.

Animal rights activists were
none too happy with having their dirty laundry aired on national television.
New West Research‘s Patricia Wolff wrote a scathing article that was posted
to an animal rights list claiming the show “targeted two animal liberationists
… and in so doing, smeared the entire animal rights movement.” Of
course since such large segments of the animal rights movement seem so
enamored of this sort of direct action, it seems a bit odd to blame America’s
Most Wanted
for the animal rights movement penchant for defending even
violent extremists in their midst.

After all, AMW didn’t
force PETA president Alex Pacheco to say, “Arson, property destruction,
burglary and theft are ‘acceptable crimes’ when used for the animal cause.”

Wolff also lamented that the
“real criminals” – those who profit from the fur industry –
weren’t profiled. She complained that while a fur industry spokesman denounced
the destruction of the Fur Breeders Co-op as a “very violent and
terrorist-type act” there was “no mention of the violence of
and terrorism the fur industry commits against animals.”

There were also the pseudo-conspiratorial
claims from Wolff that seem a bit too common among animal rights
activists. Not understanding that society has an interest in punishing
individuals who place pipe bombs at legitimate businesses, Wolff claimed
“their [AMW’s] report is clearly politically motivated” (this
mirrors the line taken by some anti-abortion extremists about coverage
of abortion-related violence) and wondered “what role did the fur
industry have in all this?”

Uh, Patricia, they were the
victims of the bombing.