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“Racial purity” DNA testing slammed as perversion, but halting practice might not be easy

June 18, 2012
Special to World Science  

A Hun­gar­i­an pol­i­ti­cian has sparked out­rage af­ter re­port­ed­ly us­ing a DNA test to try to prove his sup­posed white ra­cial pu­r­ity.

But some sci­en­tists ac­knowl­edge that stop­ping such a prac­tice might not be easy, since DNA an­ces­try test­ing can al­so be done for legit­i­mate pu­rposes.

The Eu­ro­pe­an So­ci­e­ty of Hu­man Ge­net­ics is­sued a state­ment on June 14 con­demn­ing DNA “ra­cial pu­r­ity” tests as an “un­eth­i­cal per­ver­sion” of sci­ence, as well as sim­ply in­valid. The declara­t­ion fol­lowed rev­ela­t­ions that a Hun­gar­i­an ge­net­ics com­pa­ny, Na­gy Gén, had scanned 18 loca­t­ions in the ge­nome of a Hun­gar­i­an par­lia­men­tar­ian from the sharply right-wing Job­bik par­ty. The com­pa­ny looked for gene vari­ants char­ac­ter­is­tic of Gyp­sy and Jew­ish an­ces­try, and con­clud­ed that both could be ruled out. 

The com­pany has since em­phat­i­cally dis­tanced it­self from what it calls in­ap­pro­priate use of its find­ings, and apol­ogized for any re­sulting “emo­tional harm.”

“This is a gross dis­tor­tion of the val­ues of ge­net­ic test­ing, which is in­tend­ed to be used to di­ag­nose dis­ease rath­er than to claim ra­cial pu­r­ity,” said Jo­erg Schmidtke, pres­ident of the Eu­ro­pe­an So­ci­e­ty, in its state­ment. “In ad­di­tion, the test proves noth­ing; it is im­pos­si­ble to de­duce some­one’s ori­gins from test­ing so few places in the ge­nome. I am sure that clin­i­cal ge­net­icists world­wide will join me in con­demn­ing this scan­dalous abuse of a tech­nol­o­gy that was de­vel­oped to help the sick, rath­er than to pro­mote ha­tred.”

How­ev­er, oth­er sci­en­tists ac­knowl­edged that one can de­duce el­e­ments of an­ces­try from genes, and even do so for le­git­i­mate rea­son­s—so a whole­sale con­demna­t­ion of all such ac­ti­vity could be prob­lem­at­ic.

In­deed, there was no out­burst of crit­i­cism when in 2010 the U.S. pub­lic tel­e­vi­sion net­work PBS aired a se­ries of an­ces­try pro­files of prom­i­nent Amer­i­cans, based partly on DNA tests. The pro­gram, “Faces of Amer­i­ca,” was hosted by Hen­ry Lou­is Gates, a prom­i­nent black Har­vard Uni­vers­ity schol­ar. Celebr­i­ties, in­clud­ing the ac­tress Mer­yl Streep, were shown in an ap­prov­ing light as they sub­mit­ted to the anal­y­ses and com­mented on the re­sults. 

But no claims of “ra­cial pu­r­ity” fig­ured in those find­ings, and that per­haps gets to the heart of the mat­ter. What sci­ent­ists and ethic­ists really ob­ject to is cases where DNA find­ings are used to in­flame ra­cial hos­til­i­ties.

An­drew Read, a mem­ber of the board of the Eu­ro­pe­an So­ci­e­ty, said one dis­tin­guish­ing and ob­jec­tion­a­ble fea­ture of the re­cent test in Hun­ga­ry was its use to ex­clude, rath­er than in­clude, par­tic­u­lar an­ces­tral con­nec­tions.

“I think there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween tak­ing a test to in­clude or ex­clude an­ces­try,” said Read, of the Uni­vers­ity of Man­ches­ter, U.K. In fact, he added, to­tally ex­clud­ing a rela­t­ion­ship to any hu­man group is im­pos­si­ble, as eve­ry­one ul­ti­mately de­scends from a com­mon root. Read al­so agreed with the idea that even the at­tempt to ex­clude a cer­tain an­ces­try is a warn­ing sign of sin­is­ter mo­tives, as some­one choos­ing to be tested in such a way is im­plic­itly com­mu­ni­cat­ing that some an­ces­tral con­nec­tions are un­de­sir­a­ble.

Not all sci­en­tists were will­ing to dis­cuss how one might dis­tin­guish a rac­ist who is us­ing DNA tests for di­vi­sive pu­rposes, from some­one who gets tested out of an in­no­cent in­ter­est in his or her an­ces­try. Nor did scient­ists clear­ly ad­dress how to deal with some­one who might under­take a DNA test for one stated pur­pose, then try to put the re­sults to another, less “kum­ba­ya” use. 

Schmidtke, the Eu­ro­pe­an So­ci­e­ty pres­ident, sidestepped such ques­tions when they were posed to him in an e­mail. “Noth­ing is wrong with us­ing ge­net­ic in­forma­t­ion to un­der­stand one’s own an­ces­try,” wrote Schmidtke, of Han­no­ver Med­i­cal School in Germany. “What we are con­demn­ing is a mis­use of such in­forma­t­ion in a socio-political con­text.” He left it at that.

“The facts cer­tainly do say, clear­ly, that with­in some rath­er crude bounds… your geno­type,” or ge­net­ic pro­file, “re­flects your ge­o­graph­ic an­ces­try,” said Ken­neth M. Weiss, a Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­vers­ity an­thro­po­l­o­gist with a spe­cial­ty in bi­o­log­i­cal eth­ics. “Ra­cial varia­t­ion is not cat­e­gor­i­cal, be­cause there is so much varia­t­ion in our ge­nomes. But na­tive Eu­ro­pe­ans would not be mis­tak­en for Africans or Asians for Eu­ro­pe­ans, if one has enough ge­no­mic da­ta.”

Béla Melegh, president of the Hungarian So­ciety of Human Gene­tics, said the organi­zation is asking the Hung­arian gov­ern­ment to pro­se­cute
Na­gy Gén, the test­ing com­pany, under a 2008 law on gene­tics.

Na­gy Gén re­leased a state­ment say­ing “we strict­ly dis­tance our­selves from rac­ism as well as eth­ni­cal dis­crim­i­na­tion,” as well as “rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal move­ments, such as Job­bik.” 

Ge­net­ic re­sults should not serve as “tools for po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da,” the Na­gy Gén state­ment con­tin­ued. Dur­ing test­ing, “we do not know the pa­tien­t’s real iden­ti­ty, and we do not gath­er any in­for­ma­tion from our clients, ex­cept the clin­i­cal da­ta which is nec­es­sary for health re­search. We apol­o­gize for any emo­tion­al harm caused by an edited ge­net­ic re­sult on the In­ter­net which was up­loaded by an un­known per­son... Our lab­o­ra­to­ry lo­cat­ed at a Hun­gar­i­an uni­ver­si­ty has been closed re­cent­ly due to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion.”

* * *

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Note: This art­icle has been up­dated since its orig­inal post­ing by the in­clus­ion of the re­marks from the Na­gy Gén com­pany.






 

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A Hungarian politician has sparked outrage after allegedly using a DNA test to demonstrate his supposed racial purity. But some scientists are acknowledging that stopping such a practice might not be easy, since DNA ancestry testing can also be done for legimitate purposes. The European Society of Human Genetics issued a statement on June 14 condemning DNA “racial purity” tests an “unethical perversion” and unsound science. The declaration came after revelations that a Hungarian genetics company, Nagy Gén, had scanned 18 locations in the genome of a Hungarian parliamentarian from a sharply right-wing party, Jobbik. The company looked for gene variants characteristic of Gypsy and Jewish ancestry, and concluded that both could be ruled out. “This is a gross distortion of the values of genetic testing, which is intended to be used to diagnose disease rather than to claim racial purity. In addition, the test proves nothing; it is impossible to deduce someone’s origins from testing so few places in the genome. I am sure that clinical geneticists worldwide will join me in condemning this scandalous abuse of a technology that was developed to help the sick, rather than to promote hatred,” said Joerg Schmidtke, president of the European Society. However, other scientists acknowledged that one can deduce elements of ancestry from genes, and even to do so for legitimate reasons—so a wholesale condemnation of all such activity could be problematic. Indeed, there was no outburst of criticism when in 2010 the U.S. public television network PBS aired a series of ancestry profiles of prominent Americans, based partly on DNA tests. The program, “Faces of America,” was hosted by Henry Louis Gates, a prominent black Harvard University scholar. Celebrities, including the actress Meryl Streep, were shown in an approving light as they submitted to analyses of their ancestral backgrounds and commented on the results. But no claims of “racial purity” figured in those findings, and that perhaps gets to the heart of the matter. Andrew Read, a member of the board of the European Society, said one distinguishing and objectionable feature of recent test in Hungary was its use to exclude, rather than include, particular ancestral connections. “I think there’s a difference between taking a test to include or exclude ancestry,” said Read, of the University of Manchester, U.K. In fact, he said, totally excluding a relationship to any human group is impossible, as everyone ultimately descends from a common root. Read also agreed with the idea that even the attempt to exclude a certain ancestry through DNA testing is a warning sign of sinister motives, as someone choosing to be tested in such a way is implicitly communicating that some ancestral connections are undesirable. Not all scientists were willing to discuss how one might distinguish a racist who is using DNA tests for divisive purposes, from someone who gets a test out of an innocent interest in his or her ancestry. Schmidtke, the European Society President, sidestepped that question when it was sent to him by email. “Nothing is wrong with using genetic information to understand one’s own ancestry,” wrote Schmidtke, of Hannover Medical School in Germany. “What we are condemning is a misuse of such information in a socio-political context.” He left it at that. Nagy Gén did not answer questions submitted by email as of the time of publication. “The facts certainly do say, clearly, that within some rather crude bounds… your genotype,” or genetic profile, “reflects your geographic ancestry,” said Kenneth M. Weiss, a Penn State University anthropologist with a specialty in biological ethics. “Racial variation is not categorical, because there is so much variation in our genomes. But native Europeans would not be mistaken for Africans or Asians for Europeans, if one has enough genomic data.”