Bill Seeks to Prevent DNA Collection by CSU Schools

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AB 70, introduced by State Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton

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Amid ongoing controversy surrounding a UC Berkeley program asking incoming students to submit DNA samples for testing, a state bill has been introduced that, if passed, would prevent CSU schools from requesting genetic material from students and would urge UC schools to do so as well.

The bill was originally introduced by a former assemblyman in December 2008 to address the needs of English learners in state schools, but, in a procedure called "gut and amend," California State Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, rewrote the bill on June 24 in a last-minute effort to ban non-medical related requests for DNA at CSUs.

The new bill is a response to a campus program, launched by the College of Letters and Science in May, that sends cotton swabs to incoming students and offers to test their DNA samples for their ability to tolerate alcohol, metabolize lactose and absorb folic acid.

"We're generally concerned about the abuse of DNA gathering," Norby said in an interview Tuesday. "It should only be used for specific health reasons or to prove or disprove criminality."

The purpose of the program, according to Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences, is to directly engage a diverse group of students in the field of personalized medicine, a burgeoning area of study that he says will have a "significant impact on their lives."

The last of the approximately 5,000 DNA sample kits were sent out Monday, and they will be coming back to campus by early August, according to Alix Schwartz, the coordinator for the "On the Same Page" program.

The bill - which, due to the degree of the university's autonomy from the state, can only urge the UC to stop requesting DNA - has not yet caused officials to alter the program, though it has produced some unease among some on campus.

"The bill itself hasn't changed our plans," said Schlissel. "But it concerns us because it appears to be an effort by the state to reach down and control us and tell us what to teach and how to do it."

However, Schlissel said he doubts the bill will pass and become a law because it is so late in the legislative cycle, adding that legislators should be working on the state budget rather than on processing bills.

Though campus officials have said the samples are voluntary, would remain anonymous and would be immediately disposed of after their use, critics have said the program still raises ethical concerns. The bill claims that the collection of students' DNA poses "unique challenges to protecting individual privacy."

UC Berkeley professors have voiced similar concerns. Kimberly TallBear, assistant professor of science, technology and environmental policy, said she is against the program because she said it inadequately informs students about the ethics and consent involved in DNA sampling. She said many of her colleagues share her concern and even held a meeting with the program's directors.

Though she does not support the bill because she is worried that it may set a dangerous precedent if the Legislature has the ability to put pressure on universities and interfere with curriculum.

"The bill is like a double-edged sword," TallBear said. "I don't want those who politically disagree to be able to push us back in this way in the future."


Contact Zoe Filippenko at [email protected]

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