In our postmodern world, it is unsurprising that many cling to a few “facts” that science offers in investigating crimes. DNA profiles can help solve crimes and exonerate the innocent. In court, these profiles allow juries to eliminate reasonable doubt when used with other evidence – even though DNA profiles are not 100 per cent accurate. But outside criminal investigations, DNA information holds power beyond its use as the 21st century’s fingerprint.
The vast array of information that DNA holds about an individual suggests that any mass collection of information has the potential to trample on privacy rights. Few would suggest that the government has the right to know an individual’s sexual orientation, susceptibility to specific diseases, predisposition to certain behaviour, or if they were a result of a mother’s affair. Each one of these “facts” has been linked to DNA, and scientists suggest even more details about human behaviour may be entwined in our double helix.
Proponents of DNA databases argue that information beyond the genetic fingerprinting of criminals would not be available to the public. One cannot be entirely confident in this statement. Insurers have the potential to reap immense profits by rejecting applicants with genetic predisposition to diseases requiring expensive treatments, just as they now reject applicants with certain prior conditions. In the political realm, one can imagine the ease with which the government would be compelled to examine teachers whose DNA profile indicates a predisposition toward violent or predatory behaviour. It took centuries to eliminate institutional racial discrimination – many argue it still exists. Racism reflects the misuse of constructed notions of race; if genetic discrimination becomes a reality, it will be even harder to dismiss than racism.
The driving force behind DNA databases is their use within the justice system. If this is the goal, then the existing procedures already provide adequate access to DNA information. After all, DNA evidence alone is insufficient to win a case. Convictions require corroborating accounts that establish a chain of evidence confirming the accused’s motive and actions. If the only information the prosecution holds is DNA material proving that the accused was present at some point at the crime scene, reasonable doubt would bar a conviction. DNA evidence can tell us the accused was there, but it cannot tell us what happened. Investigators should have the ability to subpoena DNA samples from suspects. They do not require a DNA database to do so.
In this debate about DNA databases, many are unaware of the extent of information that would be held by the government. Science itself is not fully aware of the power of DNA to influence present behaviour and future actions. The current information provided by DNA will have an impact on individuals if it becomes publicly available. Centralized databases will make it easier to determine who was at the scene of a crime, but they will not make it easier to make a conviction. A crime without witnesses remains the most difficult to prosecute. The solution is not to give the government access to such precious, private information.
Sean Hayward is a U3 History student. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.