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The retention of forensic DNA samples: a socio-ethical evaluation of current practices in the EU
  1. N Van Camp,
  2. K Dierickx
  1. Interfaculty Centre for Biomedical Ethics & Law, Faculty of Medicine, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  1. Dr K Dierickx, Interfaculty Centre for Biomedical Ethics & Law, Faculty of Medicine, KU Leuven, Kapucijnenvoer 35 blok d - box 7001, 3000 Leuven, Belgium; Kris.dierickx{at}


Since the mid-1990s most EU Member States have established a national forensic DNA database. These mass repositories of DNA profiles enable the police to identify DNA stains which are found at crime scenes and are invaluable in criminal investigation. Governments have always brushed aside privacy objections by stressing that the stored DNA profiles do not contain sensitive genetic information on the included individuals and that they reside under the statutory privacy protection regulations. However, it has been generally overlooked that the police also store the DNA samples from which the DNA profiles are derived. Although these DNA samples are actually a potential source of genetic information, they have so far scarcely been the subject of discussion. In this article we will show that both European and national regulations offer inadequate protection to completely prevent function creep, that is, the use of these forensic DNA samples for purposes beyond those envisaged at the time of collection.

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  • Funding: This work was supported by GeneBanC, an EU–FP6 supported STREP contract number 036751.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • i The DNA profiling technique was developed by Alec Jeffreys and his colleagues at the University of Leicester.1

  • ii One of the first cases that was solved using DNA profiling was the famous 1985 Pitchfork-case (R v Pitchfork and Kelly (1987)). After a violent double-rape murder, the police asked all young males from a small English village to deliver a blood sample. When this so called “dragnet” did not produce a positive match, it became apparent that a local baker called Colin Pitchfork attempted to avoid detection by delivering a false sample. He was re-tested and eventually confessed, wherupon another suspect—who was wrongfully held by the police—was released.2

  • iii Certain ethologists thought that the explanation of violent behaviour could be found in the established fact that certain men have two instead of one Y chromosome. Although this conclusion has been refuted in many other studies now, even governmental agencies still use the story of the XYY man to push towards more research into the genetic causes of violent and antisocial behaviour.13

  • iv For an overview of the situation of forensic DNA database policies in the USA, see for example Kimmelman.15

  • v Although England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have their own forensic DNA database, they do share the same inclusion criteria.

  • vi However, none of the European national databases exceeds the England and Wales NDNAD which now holds over three million DNA profiles.16

  • vii For an extensive overview of the EU Member States’ forensic database policies and the relevant national legislation, see Van Camp N, Dierickx K.21

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