DNA theft can nab un­faith­ful

In­va­sion of pri­vacy sparks eth­i­cal de­bate

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - HENRIETTE GELDENHUYS

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.

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