DNA theft can nab unfaithful
Invasion of privacy sparks ethical debate
SOUTH Africans are increasingly taking other people’s DNA, such as hair and semen, without their consent and having it tested at private DNA laboratories here, in Gauteng and in KwaZulu-Natal.
For just over R1 000, it is possible to find out in as little as 10 days whether your partner has cheated on you, whether you stand to inherit a fortune, or even whether a child you wish to adopt has “desirable traits”.
The question is whether this constitutes DNA theft, is an invasion of privacy, or whether DNA is a free-for-all, there for the taking by anyone, anywhere and at any time.
Private DNA laboratories such as Genediagnostics in Somerset West, and DNAtest and DNA Diagnostics Centre ( DDC) in Umhlanga in KwaZulu-Natal, compete with foreign laboratories HomeDNAdirect and EasyDNA, which have DNA drop-off points in the Western Cape and Gauteng.
DNAtest owner Nevin Pillay said his company once tested undergarments received from an Eastern Cape man that proved his wife was cheating on him.
“We received the undergarments every Monday without fail for about four weeks. It all belonged to one lady,” said Pillay, adding people often
of the law
send them soiled garments to establish to whom they belong.
Pillay acknowledged this could be theft.
“It would be stealing if I take someone’s DNA to use it for something untoward. We’re working in a very grey area of the law,” he said.
While DNAtest allows tests without the consent of the person whose DNA it is, this is banned at the local laboratory.
Monique Zaahl, managing director of Genediagnostics, said they required clients to provide signed consent of the person whose DNA was being tested.
“But we don’t really know who signed. There’s already been a case where a father forged a mother’s signature,” she said.
DNA testing without such consent was unethical, probably illegal and infringed on the right to privacy, she added.
Zaahl said Genediagnostics received many such requests.
“People cut a piece of bedding off or bring hair in a brush or that’s another colour. They say they must know who it belongs to,” she said.
Pillay said people often used test results for insurance or inheritance purposes.
For example, a grandmother from a “very wealthy Durban family couldn’t get her son to accept a child wasn’t his”.
“The child’s mom wanted to get into the family.
“The DNA test proved her (grandmother) right,” he said.
In another case, a businessman died and left an insurance policy.
A mother could prove her child was his, so the child became a beneficiary of the policy, said Pillay.
Forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow asked: “If you leave DNA behind, who does it belong to? If I want your DNA, am I entitled to it? If you don’t want your DNA to be taken, isn’t it your responsibility to remove it, wipe it off surfaces? Someone can ask: ‘Why didn’t you take better care of it?’ I don’t know if it’s theft if I deprive you of the use of it,” he said.
A mother might consider it theft if a person who wasn’t allowed to make contact with her child removed hair from the child for DNA tests, the scientist said.
Reg Horne, managing director of private investigations firm Justicia Investigations, said it was unethical for private investigators to refer DNA for testing if they knew it was obtained without consent.
“Everybody running around with DNA? No. We don’t. If you come to me with DNA, I wouldn’t entertain it. I refer you straight to the private labs,” he said.
However, Horne believed it was ethical for a wife to steal hair for DNA tests if she suspected her husband was being unfaithful. He gave the example of a married German couple who both had blonde hair. The husband went hysterical and scolded hotel staff when he found black hair in his hairbrush on returning to his hotel room.
He said a test might prove there was no third party involved, so “how can you say that’s unethical?”.
Private investigator Alan Carey said it was “wrong” to steal someone’s DNA, and that he would refuse to arrange a test on that DNA for “ethical reasons”.
“There’s no domestic law that allows for that,” he said.
Advocate Koos Louw said one could only steal something of commercial value, which included semen and hair as these could be traded.
A DNA thief should have the intent to permanently deprive the victim of his or her assets – hair or sexual fluids in this case, the advocate added. henriette.geldenhuys@inl. co.za
Laboratory technician Onkabetse Motaung completes a test at Genediagnostics in Somerset West this week.