June 28, 2010
A civil rights lawyer is threatening to sue the Texas Department of State Health Services for secretly handing over genetic data on 800 newborns to the U.S. military for a law enforcement database.
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, only recently settled a lawsuit with the department for collecting the DNA in the first place without parents’ consent. After it became known that hospitals were taking blood samples from the heels of newborn infants and storing them indefinitely, Harrington and four parents took the state to court over unlawful search and seizure. The case was settled when the department agreed to destroy 5.3 million blood samples.
After the case became public, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring health workers to inform parents before taking such blood samples, giving them a chance to opt out.
According to Harrington, the Department of Health Services never admitted during negotiations that any off-site use had been made of the blood samples.
“I can’t tell you how many times we sat there, and they said no law enforcement,” Harrington said. “They said, ‘It’s only about medical research, it’s only about medical research.”
“This is the worst case of bad faith I have dealt with as a lawyer,” he said.
Recently, however, the Texas Tribune discovered information on the department’s web site indicating that 800 of the samples had been sent (without identifying information) to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory database project.
The genetic material might help identify “ethnic or ancestral origins of unidentified corpses using mitochondrial DNA,” said department spokesperson Carrie Williams, defending the decision to participate in the program. “We believed it was an important research project that could potentially help in missing persons cases.”
Regarding why no one was notified that DNA collected without consent was being sent to the military, she said, “We don’t publicize every agency initiative or contract, and obviously this is a sensitive topic.”
Harrington has threatened another lawsuit unless the samples are destroyed.
Sources for this story include: www.statesman.com/news/texas-politi….
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