The Ethics of Gene Theft

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I was reading more about surrogacy online, and as so often happens on the internet, I found myself interested in a different, yet somewhat related topic I had never heard about before- the ethics of gene theft. In this article, bioethicist Jacob M. Appel explains that gene theft involves acquiring someone's DNA, usually from a public area, without his or her consent. Given the ease of genetic testing, which requires only minute samples of DNA to produce accurate results, DNA can be harvested from numerous objects that the source comes into contact with such as hairbrushes, drinking glasses, or items of clothing. Although many of the motives behind gathering DNA without permission are malicious in intent, there are also benign reasons for doing so. Questionable to nefarious motives include acquiring DNA to challenge paternity, prove infidelity, and identifying private medical conditions or susceptibilities. However, stealth DNA testing can also be used by amateur detectives to investigate cold cases or by historians to examine genetic links for historical figures in unwilling descendants. According to the article several states including Minnesota allow for civil lawsuits by the person whose genes have been stolen, and the United Kingdom has criminalized genetic testing on any human samples without the source's consent. Appel argues that national legislation should be created to prohibit nonconsensual genetic testing due to the havoc the genetic information could create.

I think that gene theft is an interesting issue that will likely become a major concern as DNA testing becomes cheaper and more easily accessible to the average person. At the core of the issue is whether a person continually owns the DNA (or the information contained within it) that he or she leaves behind in public places. I find it to be uncontroversial that someone's DNA taken from a private residence is wrong because it is stealing in the same way as if a thief had instead taken a computer from the person's house. But when someone leaves behind DNA at a supermarket or restaurant, is it still owned or is it left like garbage at the end of a driveway- free for anyone to dig through and use? A major difference between garbage and DNA is that a person willfully throws out garbage whereas most DNA is left behind without anyone's consent due to human physiology. So then to me the problem becomes more similar to whether it is okay to take a laptop or ipod that someone has seemingly lost. Both the laptop and the DNA are unintentionally left behind and are of at least relatively great value to its original owner. If the laptop were a pair of mittens or a dollar bill, I think most people would call 'finders keepers' possibly due to the virtual impossibility at finding the item's actual owner. But when the item is of larger value, I think that most people feel that at least some attempt should be made at finding the item's rightful owner and would feel wrong in just keeping it. If this were translated back to DNA, one would need not to feel any obligation to return the item, but due to its high value should feel wrong by using without consent. I think another way to look at gene ownership is as an extension of medical information ownership. Currently, and I think rightfully, an individual owns all of his or her own medical information and no doctors, nurses, or otherwise can give out that information. I remember how much these laws were stressed when I volunteered at the Fairview Medical Center. As far as I can remember, it is only okay to anonymously discuss patient's conditions with others. If DNA is seen as a portable extension of medical information then it too would be wrong to delve into without its owner's permission.

If, however, gene testing without consent is made illegal I wonder what impact it will have for the scientific community and for law enforcement. I think that scientists would be able to gather DNA for testing in mass quantities that they would unlikely be able to do if consent was needed, and from this they could advance human knowledge. Also, if nonconsensual gene testing were illegal, it seems that law enforcement authorities would need a warrant in order to DNA test material at crime scenes, which could hinder or slow the resolvement of cases. Plus, there may well be other legitimate or innocent reasons one might want to test DNA without an owner's consent. Given these concerns and my previous reasoning, I think that DNA is probably owned by its producer no matter where it is left behind, but I'm not one hundred percent sure I think it should be made illegal to test without consent, especially since the malignant uses likely involve other things that are already illegal- such as crime scene tampering.


Appel, Jacob M. "'Gene-nappers,' like identity thieves, new threat of digital age." New Haven Register, 5 Nov 2009. Web. 23 Dec 2012. http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2009/11/05/opinion/doc4af258b842a6d983291505.txt?viewmode=default

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This page contains a single entry by puch0022 published on December 26, 2012 5:11 PM.

"Commodification and Commercial Surrogacy" by Richard J. Arneson was the previous entry in this blog.

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