Back to Prindle Institute

DNA Dating

photograph of person looking at phone display of tinder profile

Recently Geneticist George Church attracted controversy for his involvement in Digid8, a startup company which proposes to use DNA comparisons in dating apps to help limit the probability of two people who share a genetic mutation exposing their potential offspring to serious genetic disease. The idea has been met with charges of racism and trans-phobia, yet Church maintains that this is an important step towards the elimination of all genetic diseases. While charges of Nazi-like eugenics projects are premature at this stage, there are genuine moral dilemmas involved with projects like this.

The central idea behind the project is to let users know about their and a potential partner’s genetic background. For instance, it will inform them if they carry recessive genes connected to genetic illnesses like sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, or Tay-Sachs. It is possible for a person to carry such genes but not have the disease if they also carry a healthy dominant gene. However, if two potential parents both have the recessive gene, then their offspring has a twenty-five percent chance of suffering from the disease. Through a dating app, potential matches would be made aware of this and could be given the opportunity to plan accordingly.

As genetic testing gets cheaper, projects like this become more possible. Ethical concerns are abundant, ranging from the issues involved with sharing genetic information with a corporation to the potential to share additional genetic markers that go beyond disease. We also need to distinguish between this specific proposal and Digid8’s implementation of it, and the more general idea which could be implemented in different ways. It is possible for specific proposals to be implemented poorly or unethically apart from the ethics of whether such DNA comparisons should be used at all. Since the specific proposals are still in planning and because other companies may follow suit, I will focus on the general moral concerns.

DNA comparison to help make informed pregnancy considerations is not new. Existing prenatal genetic screening already offers us the opportunity to make these types of decisions. So there is a good deal of overlap concerning the ethical dimensions at play. In addressing the issue of eugenics in prenatal screening, Tom Shakespeare distinguishes between strong eugenics where there is an effort at population-level control of reproduction at the state-level, and weak eugenics which promotes technologies of reproductive selection via non-coercive individual choices. Such a distinction allows us to “avoid rhetorical excesses” and “disingenuous dissociations with unfortunate historical precedents.”

But we might also be concerned about the kinds of conditions being screened for. As Shakespeare notes, not every form of genetic variation constitutes a disease. While social barriers can make life harder, people born with Down’s syndrome or congenital deafness may be healthy individuals presenting no medical problems. On the other hand, there are genetic conditions where, regardless of social context, one will experience suffering, pain, and premature death. Thus, one of the most important questions is about which conditions and genetic markers are appropriate to identify and screen for.

An important factor that also needs to be considered when addressing genetic illness is the fact that several thousand illnesses are triggered by environmental factors. For instance, while there is a genetic component to diabetes, developing the condition is heavily dependent on individual diet. With different conditions being a result of genetic/environmental interaction, determining the ethics of screening for certain conditions becomes a tricky matter.

There are also additional concerns regarding public information. Currently, prenatal screening practices done in hospitals and clinics afford the possibility of consultations and counseling with obstetricians, geneticists, or pediatricians, while DNA comparison through a social media app does not afford such consultation unless it is specifically sought. This means that there is a greater chance of potential couples making uninformed or badly informed decisions. If a dating app presents information about possible genetic conditions, the person needs to have the reliable resources necessary to make informed choices about who they choose to date.

Despite these concerns, there are good reasons to pursue services that allow for DNA comparison. Certain diseases are responsible for much suffering, and so there are ethical reasons to try to prevent a child from being born with them. As Shakespeare argues,

“conditions like Tay-Sachs disease or anencephaly causes major suffering, leading to a very premature death. It is important to argue that living as a disabled person is a viable and valuable form of existence, but that existing without any possibility of a real life is not living at all.”

Services like that proposed by Digid8 may help prevent significant suffering.

There is also value in knowing what one may be in for in a potential pregnancy, even if this information may not affect the decision to have a child. In prenatal testing, women sometimes seek prescreening even while knowing that the results will not affect their choices. The information can still be valuable to a candidate parent about what they may expect. Similarly, as Church notes, the Digid8 service is not intended to block dates for people carrying dominant disease genes. Instead, this kind of information can be helpful for potential couples in their plans for creating a family.

On the other hand, there are obvious ethical concerns with DNA comparison. While it may only constitute weak eugenics in the democratic world where there is more choice and freedom and where laws and regulations will try to protect human rights, other areas of the world may not use the technology in the same way. For example, while democratic nations may limit the uses of the technology to inform users about serious and debilitating genetic conditions, authoritarian nations may seek to expand the DNA comparisons to support pseudo-scientific aims or may use the information to restrict and isolate groups of people and create greater social barriers. Thus, such technology could also be used for strong eugenics purposes. Without careful ethical oversight the technology could be used and tailored for more niche purposes like designer babies, to prevent the birth of gay and transgendered people, or to help groups of people engage in self-segregation practices.

There is much potential for good or bad in the DNA comparison services like that Church proposes, and discovering and solving the ethical problems that occur will likely take time. Trying to sort out the ethical issues involved in situations like this will be aided with input from those who have genetic conditions. Their experiences and testimonials may vary, but we need to listen to people directly affected. Those who suffer from Huntington’s are far more likely to favor prenatal diagnosis over those who are at-risk. Thus, sorting out what kinds of laws, policies, and codes of conduct may be required for DNA comparison must factor these experiences into account.

Justice and Rodney Reed: Evidence, Sentencing, and Appeal

photograph of Rodney Reed from prison

On the morning of April 23rd, 1996, the body of 19-year-old Stacey Stites was found in a wooded area just off of a road in rural Texas. Stacey had been raped and strangled to death with her own belt. Seven months later, Rodney Reed was arrested for her murder. Reed was convicted of the crime in 1998 and was sentenced to death by lethal injection. The execution was scheduled to take place on November 20th, 2019. On November 15th, 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued Reed an indefinite stay of execution. The stay was issued in a climate of tremendous support for Reed. Celebrities such as Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian West, Oprah, and Dr. Phil all spoke openly and actively about their support for a potential stay in Reed’s case. Politicians who have voiced similar support include presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.

When Stites was recovered, DNA was found both in and on her body. All of the prominent men in her life, including her fiancé Jimmy Finnell, were tested and ruled out. Months later, there was another attack. 19-year-old Linda Schlueter was using a drive-up payphone when she was approached by Reed for a ride. She initially declined, but eventually agreed. During the drive, Schlueter reported that Reed directed her down a dark dirt road. When she refused to take that route, Reed attacked her, repeatedly bashing her head against the steering wheel. She reported an exchange with her attacker, “And I asked him, ‘What do you want? What the hell do you want from me?’ And he said, ‘I want a blowjob. And I said, ‘You’ll have to kill me before you get anything from me.’ And he said, ‘I guess I have to kill you then.’” Schlueter saw the lights of a car approaching and was able to exit the vehicle and flee in the direction of the approaching car. Reed drove off in her car, but police were notified and Reed was quickly apprehended.

Police discovered that Reed’s DNA was already in the system because of his connection to the sexual assault of an intellectually disabled woman in 1995, a crime for which he was never tried. Reed denied knowing Stacey Stites, but when his DNA was tested against the material recovered from her body, it was a match. Reed then claimed that he had been having an affair with Stites, but that they were keeping it a secret because Stites was engaged. Once Reed became a compelling suspect in the rape and murder, his genetic profile was tested against other unsolved rapes. It was matched to two unresolved cases—the beating and rape of a 19-year-old woman, and the beating and rape of a 12-year-old girl. When confronted with the evidence in the case against the former, Reed told a similar story of a clandestine relationship. He was never tried in either of these cases. An all-white jury convicted Reed, who is black, for the murder of Stites, who was white. The evidence against Reed has stood up to the scrutiny of nine appeals.

Many people, however, believe that compelling evidence exists that supports the conclusion that Reed is innocent of Stites’ murder. First, if the semen had been deposited as early as the prosecution alleged, one would expect to find more of it. The sample had already degraded somewhat at the time at which it was recovered. The experts at the trial testified that Reed’s semen would not have been present at all if consensual intercourse had taken place more than 24 hours earlier, as Reed had alleged. Those same experts now acknowledge that sperm can actually be present many days longer than they suggested in their original testimony.

In addition, new witnesses have come forward claiming to have knowledge that Reed and Stites were, indeed, having an affair. But many are skeptical of this evidence, since these witnesses did not come forward at any point in the last two decades and did not do so at the crucial stage at which the state was building its initial case, despite the existence of reward money for information that might lead to the arrest of a suspect.

One significant piece of evidence in support of Reed’s innocence concerns Jimmy Fennell, a police officer and Stites’ fiancé at the time of her murder. A new witness claims that Fennell confessed to the murder in private conversation, offering as his motive his rage over the fact that his fiancé had been having an affair with a black man. The witness also claims knowledge that Fennell was an abusive partner to Stites. In the years following Stites’ death, Fennell was convicted of the kidnapping and rape of a different woman, a crime that he committed while on duty as a police officer. He was sentenced to ten years in prison for that crime.

This case raises challenging ethical questions. The first concerns the role that the public plays in high-profile cases. The observation that the public can significantly impact the course of a criminal proceeding is not a new one. In one noteworthy case that inspired the film The Fugitive, Dr. Sam Sheppard was convicted of the murder of his wife. After Dr. Sheppard had spent ten years in prison, the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction because of the role the untethered media presence and public obsession with the case had played.

Public involvement in notorious criminal cases is not new, but what is new is the scope of its reach. Celebrity commentary, though profoundly lacking in any privileged insight or expertise, can be tremendously influential. If Dr. Sheppard was treated unfairly by the power of public opinion, at least the Internet didn’t exist to make his troubles exponentially worse.

One might argue that the public outcry over this case demonstrates that the speech of celebrities, politicians, and their supporters can be a force for justice. Loud voices outside of the legal system can bring about changes that perhaps never could have happened from within. One of the reasons that free speech is so valuable is that it allows citizens to speak truth to power, and as a result, it may play an important role in rectifying injustices.

In opposition to that consideration, it is important to note that our system is supposed to ensure procedural fairness. Any convicted offender, regardless of their notoriety, can expect to enjoy access to the same procedures to redress injustice in the form of the appeals process. But when the public gets involved, some cases get treated differently from others.

An additional concern has to do with the fact that the celebrities and politicians involved may not always have pure motives for speaking publicly about a particular case. A politician may, in certain cases, want to appear “tough on crime.” In others, they may want to come across as advocates of social and racial justice. A celebrity might speak out about a particular case as a publicity stunt to increase their following. These motivations are likely to be inconsistent with justice for the victims or those convicted of crimes.

This case also raises questions about what type of evidence should serve to exonerate a convicted individual on death row. Some believe that if major aspects of the prosecution’s case begin to unravel, that should be sufficient for exoneration, or it should at least mandate a new trial for the defendant. Others maintain that to justify abandoning the verdict of a judge or jury, there should be evidence of actual innocence. This is a much higher threshold to reach. Criminal trials are costly both financially and in terms of hard work and emotional cost. We simply can’t afford to bring death row cases to trial over and over again. At some point, the decisions of the jury and the courts of appeals must stand. If we are worried that this procedure isn’t reliable enough to ensure that innocent people aren’t put to death, perhaps we should not have the death penalty at all.

People who research this case at home have access to a lot of information about Reed’s past. Crucially, they have access to the fact that Reed’s DNA matched the evidence associated with two additional rapes. When viewed as a complete picture in this way, it is easy to conclude that Reed is not only a violent rapist, but a serial violent rapist. It is important to note, however, that Reed was not convicted or even tried for those crimes. What difference should that make to our assessment of the case against Reed for the murder of Stacey Stites?

Genetic Research in the Navajo Nation

A photo of Native Americans marching along a highway with flags.

In 2002, the Navajo Nation placed a moratorium on genetic research within its territorial jurisdiction.  Among the motivations were concerns about the misuse of data and the potential for privacy violations.  Many members of the Navajo Nation were opposed to the moratorium, primarily because of the medical benefits of genetic testing.  This month, the Navajo Nation announced that they are considering lifting the moratorium.

Continue reading “Genetic Research in the Navajo Nation”