Friday, September 17, 2010

Oklahoma Legislature Requires Express Consent to Retain Newborn Blood Spots

During the past several months, states continue splitting on the issue of how to approach their state health department’s retention and research use of newborn blood spots (NBS).

On September 13, The Edmond Sun ran an article on Oklahoma’s enrolled Senate Bill 1250, a new law that prevents the state health department from storing and using NBS. The text of the law reads:

“A laboratory, medical facility, hospital, or birthing place is prohibited from the unathorized storage, transferring, use, or databasing of DNA from any newborn child without express parental consent.

It being immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety, an emergency is hereby declared to exist…”
Sen. Nichols explained he sponsored the bill as a deliberate pre-emptive measure in response to ethical and privacy concerns related to unauthorized “databasing” and use of NBS in other states. According to Sharon Vaz, the Oklahoma State Department of Health genetics coordinator, Oklahoma only retains the samples for 42 days and does not have plans for long term NBS retention or to use the NBS for research purposes.

Oklahoma’s law demonstrates that different jurisdictions are arriving at starkly divergent interpretations of seemingly simple definitions such as what is or is not encompassed in the meaning of DNA. SB 1250 refers to storing or using DNA, and Sen. Nichols unequivocally explains that he intends this to encompass the retention of NBS- a blood sample. This interpretation is significant because it means the law will use the term DNA to include biological materials from which DNA can be derived.

Unlike Sen. Nichols’ inclusive approach, in late August the Court of Appeals in Minnesota affirmed that NBS do not fall within the definition of “genetic information.” We previously wrote on the Bearder case here. Minnesota has determined that biological samples (such as NBS) that contain DNA and genetic information are not genetic information.

This distinction of separating the source of raw materials (the blood) used for research from the substance of the raw materials (the DNA) is also playing out in the stem cell legal battles- although here, the debate centers around using embryos to create embryonic stem cells v. research using embryonic stem cells. In both arenas, interpreting uncertainty or disagreement of how to apply a law to favor rsearch connects to the decision to splice parts of the process to circumvent barriers to using raw materials.

SB 1250 attempts to rectify several terms that have been disputed when determining the rules for retaining and using biological materials from newborns. Although Sen. Nichols references the law with regard to NBS, the language broadly refers to “DNA from any newborn child,” which would include NBS as well as other biological samples such as umbilical cord blood that contains DNA. This would mean that if an Oklahoma hospital or a partnering research entity wanted to retain and use other biological samples containing DNA from the newborn, the hospital would need to seek parental consent. Furthermore, this law clarifies that the hospital and state health department are not exempt from compliance with the law under a research exception.

Interestingly, the text refers to the law as necessary to preserve the “public peace, health and safety” in Oklahoma. The law is set to be codified in the Oklahoma statute in the same location as crimes consisting of public disturbances, safety hazards, and physical violations against one’s person- examples of tangible harm to indivduals and society at large. This classification itself nods a recognition to the Beleno case in Texas, where plaintiffs’ emphatically argued unauthorized retention of NBS constituted a serious privacy violation and an unlawful seizure of one’s deeply private medical and genetic information.

Whether other state legislatures and health departments agree with Oklahoma’s requirement for express parental consent or the current state of “emergency,” this law reminds us that each jurisdiction should adopt a prospective law or departmental policy to address these questions in a deliberate manner.

--Katherine Drabiak-Syed