Monday, April 30, 2012

Legislatures Race to Define Rights and Obligations Relating to Genetic Information: Avoiding Another Bearder

California is the latest state to take steps toward defining permissible uses and restrictions relating to obtaining, retaining, and sharing individuals’ genetic information.  Senator Alex Padilla recently introduced Senate Bill 1267, the Genetic Information Privacy Act, designed to protect individuals against surreptitious testing of their genetic material without consent.  SB 1267 is a comprehensive piece of legislation which would require a specific authorization to obtain, analyze, or disclose genetic information unless otherwise exempted or allowed by law (exemptions include activities such as newborn screening, duties of the medical examiner, using some types of data for research, and law enforcement uses).  The legislation also contains a civil penalty structure for violations and provides a private right of action for aggrieved individuals who suffer economic, bodily, or emotional harm proximately caused by such violations. 

California’s legislation classifies genetic information within a privacy framework and seeks to increase individual control by requiring the individual to understand the purposes of how the information will be used and stored, as well as which entities have access to the information.  Other states such as Alabama, Massachusetts, South Dakota, and Vermont have introduced similar legislation that govern the collection, retention, and sharing of DNA, genetic information, and or genetic test results.  These states differ in their comprehensiveness and scope- from South Dakota’s paragraph long House Bill 1260 to Alabama’s extensive eleven page House 78.

Unlike California, these states seek to classify DNA, genetic information, and or genetic test results within a property law framework rather than under the umbrella of privacy, which carries distinct legal requirements for transfer, use, and retention.   As legislatures race to define individual rights within existing  legal concepts, they should be well aware of property law’s limitations at upholding individual autonomy while appropriately and efficiently defining permissible research uses depending on how the legislature crafts the language of the statute. 

As we witnessed in the progression of the Bearder v. Minnesota litigation (related to collecting, retaining, and disseminating newborn blood spots) even if a law is seemingly clear, individuals, clinicians, and investigators still may face confusion over relevant terminology and obligations relating to the meaning of key terms and the scope of consent exemptions.  (Blogs and article on that topic here.) Specifically, will these statutes govern the collection, use, and dissemination of genetic information after the analysis of a genetic test using a blood sample or will the language broadly address collecting blood samples, DNA, and genetic test information?  Public health officials, investigators, and individuals have vehemently disagreed over the meaning and scope of these terms and when consent is required.  Individuals have claimed immense injury to privacy and dignity when public health officials and investigators collect, retain, and disseminate their blood samples without consent, while public health officials and investigators decried setbacks to research efforts after they were legally ordered to destroy their improperly obtained blood samples. 

Last November, the Minnesota Supreme Court clarified its state Genetic Privacy Act, holding that an individual’s blood sample contains biological information and biological information falls within the definition of genetic information.   That is, any statutory references to genetic information also applies to blood samples.  It appears that the majority adopted the Plaintiffs' argument  that a blood sample contains DNA and the structure of DNA is genetic information, which means statutory requirements governing the collection, use, storage, and dissemination of genetic information necessarily include blood samples.   

Although this seminal holding is jurisdictionally limited, defining the meaning and scope of biological specimen, blood sample, DNA, and genetic information requires painstaking semantic precision.  Furthermore, the concurrence/dissent in Bearder demonstrates even keen legal minds apply varying logic to interpret terminology and arrive at starkly divergent conclusions.  Defining these terms becomes even more pressing should this or similar state legislation pass because it carries the compliance incentive of a penalty structure for violation.  Legislators should take note of litigation in this area and aim to meticulously and unambiguously define relevant terminology so individuals, public health officials, and investigators can understand their interrelated rights, obligations, and statutory exemptions.  

--Katherine Drabiak-Syed

No comments: