Article Text

Forensic DNA databases: genetic testing as a societal choice
  1. Annemie Patyn,
  2. Kris Dierickx
  1. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Leuven, Belgium
  1. Correspondence to Professor Dr Kris Dierickx, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Kapucijnenvoer 35d bus 7001, Leuven 3000, Belgium; kris.dierickx{at}


In this brief report, the authors argue that while a lot of concerns about forensic DNA databases have been raised using arguments from biomedical ethics, these databases are used in a complete different context from other biomedical tools. Because they are used in the struggle against crime, the decision to create or store a genetic profile cannot be left to the individual. Instead, this decision is made by officials of a society. These decisions have to be based on a policy that is the concretisation of some of society's most fundamental ideas about its own nature and function. Individuals wanting to influence these decisions have to try to influence this policy, within the bounds of a state's own self-concept. This article is an attempt to reorient the discussion about forensic DNA databases from a biomedical debate to a more political–philosophical one.

  • Confidentiality/privacy
  • DNA databases
  • ethics
  • forensics
  • genetic screening/testing
  • genetic testing
  • government/criminal justices
  • philosophical ethics

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In December 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the current use of the United Kingdom National DNA Database (NDNAD) violates article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (asserting the right to respect for private and family life).1 This seems to confirm the opinion of critics of forensic DNA databases, as their main concerns are privacy-related. However, we argue here that the decision on forensic DNA databases should not be based only on individual choices—and rights—but should also rest on a societal choice. In this way, we want to reorient the discussion about forensic DNA databases from a biomedical debate to a more political–philosophical one.

Forensic DNA databases are used to identify DNA samples found at a crime scene. To this end, a profile is made from the DNA sample, after which this profile can be compared with already identified profiles from a database.2 3

However, using arguments originating in biomedical ethics, several objections to these forensic DNA databases have been raised. Most objections are connected with the taking and retention of the biological samples that are the basis of the DNA profiles. These problems include violation of bodily integrity, violation of privacy (information concerning health, familial relationships, etc), discrimination, disproportional distribution of society's resources, and so on.4–9

Yet forensic DNA databases are used in a complete different context from other biomedical tools. In most areas of biomedicine (for example, abortion, genetic testing, clinical studies), the choice can ultimately be left to the individual—when the law allows an action but does not require it. This is not the case with forensic databases, because of their value in crime investigation. While medical biobanks can rely on the principle of ‘informed consent’, forensic DNA databases cannot. After all, individuals do not benefit from having their own data stored in such a database: the inclusion of a DNA profile is favourable only for other persons, not for the tested persons themselves. Consequently, these databases are controlled by the government or police services, who can force someone's data to be included in the database.

Consent to store data in a forensic DNA database thus can hardly be given at the level of the individual, but, rather, is a societal choice. Individuals cannot make the decision for themselves, but can only try to indicate a direction to the society's choice. This societal choice will be based on the balancing of the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of such database.

The benefits of these databases consist primarily in increased security. It is important to realise that these benefits concern, in the first place, individual citizens, not society as an abstract entity. It is thus not because a choice is not made personally by us that the choice does not concern ourselves personally.

The costs of this security lie in two realms.10 On the one hand, the use of a forensic DNA database generates enormous financial expenditures. Societies can no longer spend these sums on other projects. They have thus to ask whether security has to play such a large part in society and whether the money has to be spent on such a repressive policy.

On the other hand, a forensic DNA database incurs costs in civil liberties. The ethical objections to forensic DNA databases lie mainly in this field, for the data stored in such databases constitute a potential threat to privacy: when biological DNA samples are kept, it is possible to gather from them the utmost personal information about individuals and their relatives with regard to certain characteristics, diseases and predispositions.6 Even when the biological samples are destroyed and only the profiles are kept, it is possible to gain information about genetic relationships between persons and their ethnic origin.4 11 Furthermore, the forced taking of DNA samples from persons constitutes a possible threat to bodily integrity.12 There would also be a risk of discrimination and violation of the presumption of innocence.

A society that wants to use a system of forensic DNA databases thus has to be willing to incur these costs. When we concentrate on the non-financial costs, the fundamental choice to be made turns out to be one between security and liberty. While forensic DNA databases (probably) increase security, at the same time they restrict the liberty of citizens. A society thus has to determine what importance it attaches to these different values.

An opinion about forensic DNA databases is consequently a concrete manifestation of the vision of the nature of a society—for example, that of the UK. Precisely for this reason, a policy concerning these databases may not be the consequence of connected administrative choices but has to be a concretisation of a vision based on a clear, societal option. Of course, this choice should be based on democratic deliberation that tries to reconcile different opinions about the nature and function of a society. However, because of the fundamental undercurrent of opinion about forensic DNA databases, it is of considerable importance to explicitly spell out the different arguments of this deliberation to the citizens, and all the more so because the disadvantages of forensic DNA databases—restriction of civil liberties—will primarily burden the shoulders of these citizens.


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  • Funding The writing of this report was funded by GeneBanC, an EU-FP6 supported STREP contract number 036751.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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