The DNA Swab: A Gattaca Style Genetic Registry of ‘Valids’ and ‘In-Valids’?

In “the not-too-distant future,” DNA plays a central role in the path of one’s life. If your genetic makeup is not of sufficient caliber, you are classified as an “in-valid,” incapable of working the most desirable jobs, left to be a second-class citizen to the genetically superior “valids.” Sure, there are laws on the books explicitly prohibiting such discrimination, but the cat is out of the bag. With each person’s DNA recorded, it becomes all too easy to profile based on genetic makeup, with little or no recourse for those facing such discrimination.

Gattaca -  guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine - four DNA nitrogenous bases - image by raul2010

That’s a brief synopsis of “Gattaca” starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law. In that 1997 dystopian science fiction film, Vincent Freeman (Hawke) was naturally born and conceived, without the aid of genetic technology. He’s nearsighted, has a defect in his heart, and his lifespan is estimated at only 30.2 years. Vincent dreams of becoming an astronaut but he knows his genetic disadvantage makes that impossible, that is until he enlists the help of Jerome Eugene Morrow (Law), a genetically superior “valid” who was injured in a car accident, leaving him paralyzed.

But this is just a science fiction movie, and we have nothing to fear in the real world. Human civilization would never go down this path. Or would we?

The Daily Beast — If there’s ever a time when Antonin Scalia really rises to the occasion, it’s when he serves as the Supreme Court’s liberal conscience. That’s not the role that’s ordinarily expected of him, of course, but it’s a role he does play from time to time. And he got to play it again yesterday when the Court ruled in Maryland v. King that police can require arrestees to submit to DNA sampling as part of the booking process, with the results matched to a national database to solve old cases. In a slashing dissent entertainingly written even by Scalia-dissent standards, he joined liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan to accuse his conservative colleagues of flunking Civil Liberties 101. (Justice Stephen Breyer, ordinarily a liberal vote, was meanwhile crossing over to join the conservative majority.)

Of course I know what some of you might be thinking — I sound just like a conservative, talking about slippery slopes. And maybe that is true. I can no more predict a Gattaca style future than supporters of DNA swabbing can guarantee against it. But I feel like in the mind of law enforcement, civil liberties are increasingly a burden, an obstacle to be overcome in fighting crime. And on that point, you might even say I sound like a NRA gun nut. Aren’t they worried about a national registry of gun owners just as I’m worried about a national registry of DNA? Maybe so, but material rights are not civil rights, regardless of what card-carrying NRA members might say.

But this is just a harmless database of DNA, it’s not like we are talking about pre-crime, right? — Heh, funny you should ask.

Vice — The future that psychologist Dr Adrian Raine predicts—from a civil liberties perspective, at least—falls somewhere between Philip K. Dick’s most outlandish speculations and a genuinely serious cause for alarm. Here are the basics: come 2034, with the economic cost of crime spiraling and the public sick of murder headlines, the US government introduces a program of mandatory brain scanning for 18-year-old men and women.

The scan cross-references every young person against a database of criminal genetics. It looks out for matches in three areas: violent assault, sexual assault, and murder. A score above 79 percent in the first category, 82 percent in the second, and 51 percent in the third will, in Raine’s dystopia, see the so-far-innocent 18-year-olds locked up in luxurious preventative “prisons.” Indefinitely. Until some kind of therapy reduces their score or they’ve been subjected to a Ludovico technique so many times that they flick their own kill switch.

Yay, now we can have a “Gattaca” and “Minority Report” future. Damn you Hollywood!

I think Dr. Raine’s work is probably vitally important, but it definitely is a really sensitive area. I mean, if we can predict who is likely to commit a crime, what exactly do we do with that information?

But Dr. Raine does make a very salient point.

Dr. Adrian Raine — One of the problems I have is that I can give the science, but I can’t make a decision for society. This is a question of, do we want to protect society? Or do we want to protect civil liberties? And what’s the balance going to be? From all the research I’ve seen, the best investment society can make in stopping crime and violence is investing in the early years of the child. The problem is that we have to wait 20 years for the payoff. And, in the lifespan of politics, that’s too long.

As a liberal I have a tendency to shun slippery slope arguments because I believe such arguments are excuses for doing nothing, or worse, to continue prejudicial policies. I believe that we charge ahead and try to right wrongs and fix problems when they arise. So the slippery slope should never develop, right? Well the problem is, will you notice it’s formation before doing something about it becomes prohibitively difficult?

image by raul2010

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