San Diego In 20 years, are you likely to meet yourself? Could someone clone another you from a Kleenex you dropped? Will your insurance premium depend on your DNA test results? Will a federal DNA data bank ban procreation among less than DNA-perfect couples?
These are problems of the future, but as Tom Gilroy of San Diego's Genetic Profiles Corporation lab in Sorrento Valley confirms, even right now, DNA can cause ethical heartburns.
Paternity is Gilroy's business. Men and women troop up his stairs to an office in a Sorrento Mesa business park to have their blood taken for his $450 paternity test. Most of them live too far away to show up themselves, so they send their blood samples from elsewhere around the country, two vials each, by Airborne Express, to answer personal questions about whether they are the real fathers, mothers, sons, or daughters of someone they love or hate, someone alive or dead.
This afternoon, Gilroy, a Ph.D. in human genetics who founded Genetic Profiles in 1990, is having problems. His secretary balances a telephone in each hand, passing messages from one party to another. It's obvious the two parties are not talking to each other.
"The guy's a little paranoid," Gilroy says, pointing to the left phone. "He's worried that someone would switch blood on him. The woman might just be trying to make it tough for him. She insisted that he drive 80 miles to where she is to have the blood sample taken, because I think she wanted to be sure it was him. But he's afraid that she might figure out some way to find the real father's DNA and plug it in [and say the baby is his]. He's just being paranoid. We use these [methods] where that's not possible. What we do is do the testing and let the chips fall where they may. We try not to get too involved with the [drama]. We don't care who wants what, because the molecules tell us what's happening. But it's hard to tell that to someone who's paranoid."
We're standing in his second-floor lab and office. His assistant Matt works quietly between incubators and shaking baths and microwaves, creating gels to lay DNA samples in. Each sample will be tested five times, each DNA probe will be incubated at 55 degrees Celsius until it attaches to its target, the customer's DNA. After two or three weeks, the samples' molecular weight will be measured, and they will show Gilroy a pattern that will tell him an irrefutable story about two human lives. It's eerie to think that right here, maybe 50 relationships are hanging in the balance.
How hot can DNA issues become? Some believe a recent case in Ventura County could set a pattern for the future.
When 66-year-old William Hike died of emphysema at St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital April 29 last year, one of Hike's five living children, Amber Hunt, asked the hospital to make some of her dead father's blood available for a paternity test. She suspected she was not Hike's biological child. The hospital agreed and sent vials of Hike's blood to Long Beach Genetics for DNA testing. According to the Ventura County Star, the results came back in one typed sentence.
"William Hike is not the father of Amber Hunt."
That sentence ignited a firestorm. Dorothy Hike, William's widow, sued the hospital and its sister facility, St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, for $75,000 for releasing her dead husband's blood without her permission. She also sued the lab, Long Beach Genetics. (The cases were tossed out of court, but Mrs. Hike is appealing.)
Whether or not she succeeds, the case has raised myriad questions. Who has a right to another's DNA details? Aren't the remains of the dead sacrosanct? Does the need-to-know of the living supersede the dead's right to privacy?
Gilroy does get requests to do paternity tests on people who have died.
"It seems that usually the body will be at a coroner's office, perhaps, and sometimes it's a young man who has died in a car accident. We've had people who would call in and seem to get clearance from the coroner when the woman, usually the mother of a child, says she thinks it is the offspring of the deceased man. Either the wife or the mate of the deceased man would be able to get the samples released, or more commonly, she'd go through his parents to get it released. Typically when the police find that someone of that age who might be involved in a paternity test dies, they save some blood for insurance purposes, I guess, [and] for the possible involvement of drugs or alcohol."
And in a case like William Hike's? "I think we would look to the hospital and ask, 'Are you adequately cleared to release it?' If they released it, I think we would be doing the testing, because you're dealing with a living person who says, 'I really need to know, I need to know if this is my father.' "
More common are requests from men who suspect their wives have been sleeping around and want to know for sure that they're the father of a child. "The alleged father is often the one who calls in and wants it done," Gilroy says. "He just wants to be comfortable. He's saying, 'I could be the father of this child... Then again, I may not be. If I'm not, is it really right for me to be supporting this child at the same level that I would if I weren't the father?'
"Quite frequently the mother is also calling in and wants it done, and she may even be paying for it. She wants to demonstrate [to her partner] that he is the father. On rare occasions, she wants to demonstrate that he's not the father."
But there appears to be one class of male whose rights stop at the DA's office door. "We get a lot of the ones who [are ordered to be tested for paternity] by the court, or through the district attorney's office.... One of these guys may walk in and give blood under his own power, but he's not what you'd call a happy camper. He's doing it because he totally has to. That's pretty common, too."