Ethical issues in the forensic use of bioinformation

28 September 2007

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics last week released its most recent Report entitled The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues. Following its public consultation on the subject last year (see previous news), the Council deals with the central questions of police powers in Britain to obtain biological evidence, to retain it, and to search databases (primarily the UK National DNA Database) for various purposes. The Report is confined to the discrete issues of fingerprinting and DNA in the context of criminal justice as a means of addressing current controversies about the proper balance between police powers and individual rights to liberty, autonomy and privacy.

The Council concludes that while the need to fight crime justifies the use of biological evidence, effective governance and regulation are essential. Importantly, it asserts that ‘the establishment of a population-wide forensic DNA database cannot be justified at the current time’, on the basis that the costs, both economic and in terms of intrusion to privacy, outweigh the potential benefits. It finds, however, that the authority to take and retain fingerprints and biological samples without consent is warranted where individuals are arrested on suspicion of involvement of serious violent or sexual offences. Where the alleged offences are minor, or individuals are not ultimately charged or convicted, the Council cautions against taking and storing of DNA without consent. Further, it recommends that samples of DNA provided in such circumstances be removable from the national database upon request, and that DNA from children should not be retained without good reason.

As with any genetic information, it is noted that the full extent and implications of the information provided by DNA samples are not well understood by all audiences. The Report recommends that legal professionals and juries should receive more guidance to assist their understanding of the meaning of DNA evidence, and that the police should not routinely seek ‘ethnic inferences’ from DNA analysis.

Finally, the Council makes a strong recommendation in favour of the institution of a statutory basis for the regulation of forensic databases and retained biological samples. The regulatory framework should, it suggests, delegate specific powers for the oversight of research and requests for access to an appropriate independent body or official.

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