Opinion: DNA-databank

POSTED: 11/21/12 1:09 PM

What is the difference between a databank filled with finger prints and a databank filled with DNA-samples? That question came alive after investigators in the Netherlands solved a 13-year old rape and murder case based on the results of a larger-scale DNA-testing procedure whereby thousands of men voluntarily gave DNA to help find the killer of a 16-year-old girl.

The project came to a successful conclusion, because investigators found a 100 percent match between the DNA from the crime scene and that from a farmer who had provided his DNA.

Reactions to the news where euphoric, even though the arrested man is only a suspect. If the investigators do not manage to support the DNA-evidence with other evidence it will not even be possible to convict the farmer.

Apart from happiness about the fact that a serious suspect is now in custody there was also an immediate call for establishing a national DNA databank. People ought to give up their DNA at birth, some people suggested.

But chances that this will happen in the near future are slim. There are simply too many downsides to such a massive collection of personal information, especially as long as there are no guarantees for the way such DNA-samples may be used.

Imagine that this stuff falls into the hands of insurance companies. They would be able to determine whether someone has an above average risk of getting certain diseases, and they could use this as an argument to increase premiums, or even as an argument to refuse somebody insurance. The argument that nobody is going to insure a burning house has always been very popular among insurance companies.

But what about the contribution such a databank could provide for solving crimes? After all, in the case at hand, the victim’s family has had to wait for thirteen years for some good news – insofar as that is possible when your daughter has been raped and murdered.

The argument against a DNA-database is in fact a constitutional issue. The constitution guarantees that nobody had to cooperate with his own conviction. Suspects have the right to remain silent and they do not have to do anything to help investigators. Suspects are innocent until proven guilty and it is the public prosecutor’s task to present legal and convincing evidence of someone’s guilt.

NRC Handelsblad noted in a commentary yesterday that large groups of citizens could be labeled incorrectly as suspects and that stigma and discrimination are right around the corner. Obligatory DNA-registration reverses the burden of evidence. Suddenly, citizens will be considered guilty until their innocence has been established.

The daily newspaper Trouw made a similar observation, stating that the social pressure to cooperate with DNA-registration is high. We have to be careful that this type of investigation does not become the standard, the newspaper wrote.

NRC Handelsblad noted that it is regretful that the 7,300 samples that were collected in the Vaatstra-investigation have not been destroyed immediately. The prosecution missed a chance to determine where tracking stops and privacy starts, the paper noted.

Obviously, the Dutch papers concentrated their opinions on one-time voluntary DNA-registration, the way it was done in the Vaatstra-case. But registering DNA in a national databank is of course not much different, especially when this is also done on a voluntary basis The effect will be the same: those who refuse to cooperate – also when this is based on respectable privacy principles – will be considered suspect. That is too heavy a price to pay and it is therefore good that legislation in St. Maarten does not allow the establishment of a national DNA-databank.

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