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What’s proper for DNA database – autopsy blood?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March signed the “all crimes” law that requires any person convicted of a felony or one of 36 misdemeanors, including fare-jumping and shoplifting, to submit a DNA sample to New York’s databank.

The governor, prosecutors and law enforcement officials who supported the law say it will solve cases, improve crime fighting and make New Yorkers safer.

New York’s chief judge says it’s a “balanced approach” that will decrease the number of wrongful convictions.

Civil-rights groups are skeptical. The legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the law will “increase significantly the likelihood for inefficiency, error and abuse in the collection and handling of forensic DNA.” Further, it “creates a permanent class of usual suspects whose DNA will be tested by police for the rest of their lives.”

In spite of some peoples’ concerns about DNA databanks, the trend seems to be in favor of expanding them. You don’t have to commit a crime for your DNA to become part of a database.

For almost 50 years, the law has required hospitals to take drops of blood from newborn babies, dry them on cards and screen them for genetic diseases that can kill or permanently disable their victims. These tests identify thousands of affected babies each year. Because of early recognition of their diseases, many can expect to live normal or near-normal lives.

Nobody denies that’s a good thing. But in recent years, baby blood samples have been used for other purposes – without the knowledge or consent of parents. This practice was legalized by the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush. This law permits the government to maintain a central clearinghouse of information on newborn screening for disease tracking and genetic research.

Medical researchers use the blood samples to study diseases of children. The information is also used to track children with genetic disorders and monitor their health later in life.

While almost everyone acknowledges the value of such research, a lot of people don’t want their DNA or their children’s on file with the government. People worry that the results of genetic screening could be made public in the future and used by employers to deny jobs or by insurance companies to deny coverage or raise rates.

In a move that further fueled opposition, Texas supplied infant DNA samples to the U.S. military to create a DNA database for use by law enforcement. Several Texas families sued, and the state agreed to destroy samples obtained before 2009 – the effective date of a state law that said samples may be kept unless families specifically object.

There’s no database yet, but dried blood samples obtained at autopsy are another potential source of the DNA of ordinary citizens. I release such samples only by next-of-kin consent or court order.

The dead don’t commit crimes, but their relatives do. Suspect pools shrink considerably when a perpetrator’s DNA is found to closely match that of a deceased, indicating kinship.

husercj@co.laplata.co.us Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.