The issue of informed consent and police access to a blood database

The idea of informed consent is a good one but in the latest case in the news, my initial reaction was that the parents (while making a valid point) were nevertheless being a little precious about something that was helpful, not harmful.

Imagine that I agree to give my baseball bat to the Salvation army believing that it will be sold to someone who will use it to play baseball. Many years later I discover that my old baseball bat was used to assault someone and is now evidence in a police locker. I didn’t consent for the bat to be used in that way but should I really be making a fuss about it?

Parents have expressed upset that blood samples taken from their babies soon after birth for a Guthrie test can be accessed by police under “exceptional circumstances”.

Guthrie tests involve blood samples being taken from the baby’s heel.

The mother of murdered teenager Jane Furlong was stunned to learn blood samples taken from her daughter at birth were later used by the police to identify her body.

As a mum, I would be relieved to finally have the closure and the certainty that those blood samples would provide if it was my daughter’s remains that had been found. I really am struggling to see how being able to 100% identify a victim or a criminal is a bad thing.

Police are able to seek access to the blood samples of more than two million New Zealanders under “exceptional circumstances”.

Again I fail to see a serious problem here. By all means from now on inform the parents that the blood will be used by police under ” exceptional circumstances” but I don’t think that they should have the choice to opt out. The blood database is a valuable resource and I do not think that the babies blood samples are the property of the parents.

Officers have used the database to prosecute two homicide cases, including that of Sounds murderer Scott Watson, and to identify the remains of missing persons, and victims of natural disasters.

The data was accessed in the Watson murder trial, when Olivia Hope and Ben Smart’s DNA was retrieved and matched with spots of blood found at the crime scene.

Judith Furlong learned only in the past week that police had used DNA taken from a heel test, also known as a Guthrie test, to identify her daughter Jane, whose body was found buried in sand dunes at Port Waikato in 2012.

Other parents said they were not informed of the possibility that their children’s DNA could be used in criminal investigations.

National screening unit clinical director Dr Jane O’Hallahan said police accessed the Guthrie cards “as a last resort”.

[…] She said every request from police was carefully reviewed and the Health Ministry considered the “individual concerned and the wider public interest in law enforcement and public safety”.

[…] blood spot samples were accessed once in 2010 to identify human remains, 13 times in 2011 to identify victims of the Christchurch earthquake, and in two homicide inquiries – both resulting in convictions – after a judge issued a search warrant.

Parents can apply to have the cards containing the blood returned to them. Otherwise, the information is kept and can be used for research.

For Judith Furlong, it felt like another betrayal to find out that a sample from her only daughter had been used by police without her consent or knowledge.

Without it, she would never have been able to know 100% that her daughter’s remains had been found.

[…] “It’s invasive because they didn’t inform you of anything.

[…] Scott Watson’s father Chris said he considered the cards “a DNA database by stealth”.

I can more readily understand the parents of a criminal being less impressed with the database if it is used to convict their child.

 

[…] The spokeswoman said information was tightly protected by the Privacy Act, the Official Information Act, the Health Information Privacy Code, the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights, and the Human Tissue Act.

Civil rights lawyer Michael Bott said parents had every right to feel aggrieved if they gave consent for the sample to be used for one purpose, only to find out later it had been used for another.

“The police will come back and argue that this is for a very important purpose, we’re identifying a deceased person and something like that.

“The trouble with that is that once you go down that path as a reason for basically over-riding informed-consent provisions, where does it stop?”

This is a problem that is easily fixed. Obtain consent at the start or better still simply inform the parents how the blood will be used on the form. Most won’t even bother to read what they sign.

In Western Australia, the obtaining by police of Guthrie card DNA for investigative purposes led to public outcry and resulted in the samples being destroyed after two years.

All I know is that I would be grateful if a blood database proved that my child was innocent of a crime or proved 100% that a body found was my long lost child. The positives of the blood database in my mind far outweigh any negatives.

 

– Sunday Star Times

 


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