Before he committed the gruesome act, the murderer smoked two cigarettes and left the butts in the road in front of the house. Later, investigators matched the DNA off those butts to the murderer’s own blood on a broken window at the crime scene. Long story short — the murderer was busted with his own blood and saliva.
This stuff is on TV constantly. And I sometimes stop on these forensic shows. Of course, I remember the old Perry Mason programs, how someone always jumped up to confess from the back of the courtroom. Today’s forensic shows are often just as formulaic, but the advance in criminal technology has created a new realm of fact finding, a way to pin the crime on the donkey. Meanwhile, a number of innocent people have been cleared of wrongdoing thanks to DNA tests. So, this advance in technology has been a great thing for crime fighting. And DNA has entered our popular culture, too, as a fascinating tool in determining the who done-its.
So where will it go from here?
Of course, I think of crime fighting, but what seems more intriguing is how this type of technology may alter health care. There have been great advancements in genetics in recent years. The technology now exists to evaluate people at a far deeper level than ever before. But how and when will this be applied in the doctor’s office? And should it?
There are so many questions that accompany the ability to look at our genetic composition and evaluate our physical nuances. And we will likely face more of these decisions as genetic testing becomes more available and more affordable. For instance, what if you could learn about your genetic composition, whether you possess genes that make you a good candidate for certain cancers or heart conditions, whether you have a gene for certain personality attributes or disorders? How much would you like to know? If you learn of certain probabilities, you may be able to take action to avoid certain ailments, but is that worth the anxiety that could come with painful knowledge? Would you want to know such things about your child or spouse?
Personally, I’m not opposed to limited testing on myself, but only if I could clarify what I would like to know and what should remain a mystery to me. For instance, I only want to know the painful information that I have some chance of changing or mitigating. Leave everything else off my report.
But beyond the inner grappling that accompanies such issues are the society-level matters. For instance, if I determine that certain genetic traits about myself should remain off limits to me, would I be willing to allow that secret information to remain in doctors’ databases for diagnostic purposes in the future? Consider that such information gathered in bulk could prove highly beneficial for both diagnostics and treatment options. Right now, doctors often make such decisions based on averages. But we are not averages; we’re individuals. If a doctor can compare our illness with other people with similar genetic traits, we are much more likely to have solid answers on certain problems. Medicine would surely improve over time with this technology. I feel quite confident in that.
But for all the benefits of such information come potential negatives, too. What would insurers do with our worst potential vulnerabilities laid out on a spreadsheet? Along with drug tests, could employers seek genetic test results for certain jobs, disqualifying those with certain negative traits? What about drug companies directly marketing to those with certain genetic traits? Could people covertly acquire genetic data from others, getting saliva samples off trash or other personal debris? What about people trying to alter the genetic composition of their unborn children? Will people use genetic traits in court to justify their actions, claiming they weren’t responsible for what they did? Their genes made them do it. Surely, that will happen, though I feel pretty sure most people will remain skeptical of such excuses.
I can’t help but compare genetics to the Web. Over the past two decades, the Web came and changed our world in profound ways. It is convenient, useful, powerful. It is a way to connect us all. Yet, it is ironically, also a way to isolate us as we sit at screens more and more, giving up actual face time for cyberspace time.
I believe the world of genetics is at our door and will alter our lives in more ways than we now understand. Just like the Web, there will be many really good developments, with lives dramatically improved by man’s brightest minds. But for all that brightness is a darkness, too.
We may be able to pick up that cigarette and determine that the killer has X genetic trait. So what do you do with that information? Does that future DNA database include genetic markers, linking the killer with all others with the X trait? Think about how useful this could be for investigators. Think about how scary this could be, too.
The world is speeding fast into new technological realms. But the old morality issues never go away. They just take new forms.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.