Analysis The UK government granted us ownership of our own DNA yesterday with the launch of the new Human Tissue Act.
Well, sort of. The spin being put on the new Act is that it's all about consent.
For example, it gives doctors the new power to apply to overrule bereaved families who do not want their relative's organs used for transplant even though the deceased gave consent in their lifetime. On the flip side, there won't be a repeat of the Alder Hey scandal, where a Liverpool hospital harvested dead babies' tissue for research without informing parents.
There's a shiny new government tentacle to enforce and license it all in the shape of the Human Tissue Authority. The rest of the 2004 Act, which comes into effect today, covers an array of thorny biotechnological and medical issues - which needed tackling. Our favourite is the question of DNA testing.
Government advisory board the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) welcomed the implementation of the Act yesterday. It's worth noting that on the HGC's website it says: "HGC's general aims support the Government's needs."
HGC chair Baronness Kennedy said: "Until now there has been nothing to stop an unscrupulous person, perhaps a journalist or a private investigator, from secretly taking an everyday object used by a public figure - like a coffee mug or a toothbrush - with the express purpose of having the person's DNA analysed. Similarly, an employer could have secretly taken DNA samples to use for their purposes."
Doing so could land offenders with anything from a fine to three years' imprisonment.
While we're sure Register readers will be relieved to hear the Vulture Central DNA-targeted marketing database has been mothballed in response to the new laws, they do nothing to protect the public from already burgeoning state intrusion into their genetic inheritance.
Britain already has the world's largest repository of human DNA sequences - the Home Office's national DNA database. According to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats earlier this year, 139,463 individuals who have never been convicted, charged, or cautioned are represented. Sequences are retained in the event of an acquittal. At the last count it contained over four million samples from 5.24 per cent of the population. That doesn't include those who are covered by techniques which can match their DNA to a relative who has been sampled.
Don't expect the Human Tissue Act to change any of that.
For the record, the exceptions to the ban on non-consensual DNA sampling are:
(a) The medical diagnosis or treatment of the person whose body manufactured the DNA;
(b) purposes of functions of a coroner;
(c) purposes of functions of a procurator fiscal in connection with the investigation of deaths;
(d) the prevention or detection of crime;
(e) the conduct of a prosecution;
(f) purposes of national security;
(g) implementing an order or direction of a court or tribunal, including one outside the United Kingdom.
Looking at these caveats, very few would argue with the first three. Sick people usually want to be treated if they can't give consent and dead bodies need to be identified. The final exception, covering court orders, is mostly aimed at paternity disputes. There will be more going through the courts now as, in the case of a child of unknown parentage, as previously putative fathers had no fear of prosecution if they went ahead with a test without the mother's consent.
The rest are aimed at giving the government and its agencies carte blanche to scrape, sample, sequence, and store our DNA. It's always heartening to see the National Security™ catch-all clause in a new law sold as protecting our rights.
Of course, we're not naïve enough to believe there was ever any hope of the new laws reining in government dominion over our genes. In fact, we're sure it didn't even enter the discussions. ®