Remember the recent story about police using DNA from a crime scene involving the Golden State serial killer to search online genetic databases to winnow prospective individuals with varying degrees of relatedness in their search for his identity? In Georgia, state investigators are comparing DNA from flushed fetuses to online genetic profiles to track down the mothers involved.
An article in New Scientist describes the privacy concerns raised by law enforcement’s use of DNA profiles on online ancestry websites.
While most people would be happy to help track down a serial killer, there are concerns this could be just the beginning of police using commercial genetics services to investigate other, less serious crimes.
Or even no crime at all. Aan Augusta, Georgia city coroner who autopsied fetal remains discovered at a water-treatment facility before contacting state authorities to conduct a full autopsy and genetic profile to be compared with online consumer sites, claims that it’s for the protection of women, to ‘make sure that [the mother] is not bleeding or infected and can have her miscarried or aborted child properly disposed of.’
But having a miscarriage isn’t illegal and women who miscarry at home may not even have known they were pregnant or that they were miscarrying. Legal medication abortions (e.g. RU-486) would likely occur at home as well, and legal surgical abortions utilize specific facilities and methods to dispose of embryonic and fetal remains. Even a self-induced abortion isn’t illegal in Georgia, so why go to the trouble to identify the mother?
… [Any] DNA testing on the fetal remains would be done for the purpose of finding the formerly pregnant woman, if only to identify a physician who performed an unlawful abortion. A Georgia woman who either lost a wanted pregnancy or terminated an unwanted one is at risk of being swept up in the justice system for doing something the law does not classify as a crime.
The current Republican obsession with control of women’s bodies and bodily functions extends beyond the bedroom, the bathroom and even the doctor’s office into every cell of her being. Forget privacy and private decisions between a woman and her doctor. Handmaid rules dictate that every pregnancy must be scrutinized and the mothers held accountable.
Using fetal DNA to find that woman would be a new and potentially troubling use of DNA databases, the Verge reports. Those databases are usually only used to find missing people or those suspected of criminal activity. Law enforcement officials will run DNA found at a crime scene to find either a match for a suspect or, in a practice some see as a violation of civil rights, a biologically related family member of a suspect who’s not in the database. In a missing-person case, a family member can submit her own DNA or some DNA from the missing person to test against DNA recovered from unidentified bodies in law-enforcement custody.
Neither of these accepted uses of DNA databases apply in the case of the fetal remains being analyzed in Georgia. Here, neither the fetus nor the two people with whom its DNA might match have committed a crime under Georgia law, and neither, presumably, has been reported as a missing person. If a physician did perform an illegal abortion, both the fetus and the formerly pregnant woman will be considered victims, not suspects. Using a victim’s DNA to find a potential perpetrator of a crime two degrees removed from the subject would be a significant expansion of the databases’ use and a possible violation of constitutional rights.
How about instead of government agencies using monetary and technical resources to further shame and violate women in the off-chance of finding the occasional unlawful abortionist, they put those same resources and commitment toward processing the tens of thousands of rape kits to locate and prosecute the multitude of actual criminals who terrorize and violate thousands of women? That would be more productive, protective and actually welcomed by women.
For those who have concerns about how their genetic profile may be used or misused, again from the New Scientist article,
Currently, major DNA ancestry companies – such as 23AndMe – say they generally resist police inquiries, unless they have a court order. However, customers often choose to broaden their search for long-lost branches of their family tree by uploading their raw DNA data into a free site called GEDmatch…
A statement recently posted on the GEDmatch website states that people who are concerned about non-genealogical uses of their DNA should not upload their DNA to the database, and should remove any DNA that has already been uploaded.
Of course that doesn’t erase the already uploaded profiles of distant relatives you may not know or ever have met who may unwittingly implicate you in various crimes or noncrimes.