Friday, November 20, 2009

Newborn Blood Spot Litigation Continues in Minnesota and Texas

The litigation occurring in Minnesota and Texas regarding the unauthorized retention and research use of newborn blood spots (NBS) continues, and has developed into respective battles seeking judicial recognition for a property and privacy interest in one’s genetic material from which governmental entities such as state health departments are not exempt.

In September 2009, the Minnesota district court heard the defendants’ motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment in Bearder et al. v. Minnesota et al. (MDH). MDH argued that there are no genuine issues of material fact so the court could simply rule as a matter of law in its favor to exempt the application of the Minnesota Genetic Privacy statute to the state health department's activities as well as preclude any of the plaintiffs’ privacy claims. Following this interpretation, two active bills in the Minnesota House (HF 1341) and Senate (SF 1478) seek to alter Minnesota state law by creating a compliance exemption for the state health department.

According to Bearder et al.'s attorney Randall Knutson, the parties are waiting for the court’s ruling, which is scheduled for return before December 18, 2009. Plaintiffs contend that NBS are genetic information, individuals have a property and privacy interest in their DNA, both tort and Constitutional law protect these interests, and they seek to compel MDH’s compliance with the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act.

Bearder et al.’s memorandum of law submitted to the court prior to the hearing developed concerns related to MDH’s continued noncompliance with the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act. Mark McCann, Manager of Public Health Laboratory in the Newborn Screening Program testified before the Minnesota Senate that “the number of parents who have given consent to store…the residual dried blood spots with the Minnesota Department of Health is zero” and despite the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Law requiring that the MDH obtain parental consent for retention and research use, according to McCann, actually obtaining consent is not a current practice.

The memorandum also describes the intersection of problematic shortcomings related to parental requests for destruction, “de-identification,” and research sharing with outside entities such as MDH’s $6 million contract with the Mayo Clinic. According to plaintiffs’ affidavits, some parents were not even told that the specimens would be retained and used for genetic research purposes (undermining the ability to request their destruction) or their requests for destruction were not honored. MDH refers to its system of storing and sharing the NBS as “de-identified” but it provides linked and coded NBS to the Mayo Clinic, retains the key to re-link the specimens (meaning they are not in fact “de-identified,”) and admits there is no standardized procedure for this process.

In Texas, the companion case Beleno et al. v. Texas Department of State Health Services et al. (TDSHS) asserts that individuals have a fundamental privacy interest in their DNA, which exists even absent any statutory provision specifically recognizing genetic privacy. On September 22, 2009, the Texas district court judge denied TDSHS’s motion to dismiss, meaning the court would schedule a hearing for the merits of the case unless the parties arrived at an alternate settlement. The Texas Civil Rights Project which represents plaintiffs indicated that the parties are in settlement negotiations, but as of November 20, 2009, parties have yet to sign an agreement.

Even if parties reach a settlement, Beleno et al.’s arguments used in this case merit pause and further examination. In plaintiffs’ response to defendants’ motion to dismiss, Beleno et al. argue that the defendants committed unlawful and unreasonable seizure, because although parents may have consented to providing the NBS for screening tests, they did not consent to the retention and research use of NBS. Even if the NBS were de-identified, plaintiffs argue that TDSHS unlawfully seized the specimens if they did not obtain actual parental consent, highlighting that issues of consent and privacy are both distinct yet inextricably linked both in practice and legal analysis. Importantly, Beleno et al. also argue that passive storage even absent any additional research or sharing of NBS constitutes a per se violation of Constitutional and tort privacy principles given the fact that they contain deeply private medical and genetic information.

Independent of how these courts proceed, these two cases continue to ask:

  • Do, or should, we have a property or privacy interest arising from tort or Constitutional principles in our genetic material (here, in the form of NBS) that requires consent to transfer this interest?
  • Can we minimize the potential for future litigation simply by obtaining parental consent for retention and research use?
  • Would creating codified exemptions for state health departments deter or encourage privacy advocates from litigation?

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

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