Wednesday, October 10, 2007

DNA Testing Without Consent

An article by Chicago-Kent's Law Professor and Novelist, Lori Andrews, in this week’s Parade magazine discusses the science and ethics of DNA testing on historic or popular figures. Scientists have already performed DNA testing on a number of famous deceased persons, such as Albert Einstein (potential genetic predisposition to aneurysm), Beethoven (possible lead poisoning), Francesco Medici (arsenic, rather than malaria, was the likely cause of death), and Thomas Jefferson (paternity of a child of one of his slaves).

Proposed new testing includes Abraham Lincoln’s blood, looking for Marfan syndrome, and the body of what is allegedly Billy the Kid. There is also a cottage industry of selling celebrity locks of hair and other artifacts (gum chewed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a pumice stone used by Britney Spears). The collection of locks of hair has long been a tradition among some collectors, but the other artifacts have been disallowed by Ebay, as part of their ban on the trade of body parts.

Regarding still-living celebrities and popular figures, it seems to me to be a direct invasion of privacy to test discarded items for DNA, as these could show genetic mutations that could affect insurance or the celebrity’s standing, or they could demonstrate illicit drug use. This one seems like an easy call to make for most reasonable human beings, especially if they consider being in that position themselves .

However, regarding long-dead historical figures, should there be a statute of limitations, after which it’s okay to perform genetic testing? Should it only be in cases where there is a legitimate scientific inquiry? But what constitutes ‘legitimate’? And what if descendants are unhappy with the perceived invasion of privacy? Can you invade the privacy of someone long dead? And what about grave-robbing and testing of mummies and other remnants of long-dead cultures? Is it okay if no one complains and not okay if descendants are uncomfortable with the perceived desecration of the remains? When does scientific inquiry and curiosity trump individual or cultural concerns, and does the passage of time shift this continuum?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

DNA testing of those who are long dead should be allowed because after such a long period of time. If we published Anne Frank's diary, why is it wrong to give Thomas Jefferson a paternity test? For all we know he could of written about it in his diary, too. I do not think that the far off descendants of Beethoven are really upset to know that he was tested and they found that he could have possibly been exposed to lead poisoning; if anything I would think that they would be rather interested. Now as for DNA testing Britney Spears and Arnold Schwarzenegger, I would assume that it is a violation of their right to informed consent and I highly doubt that either are willing to authorize.