Nearly every baby born in the U.S. has blood drawn in the immediate hours after their birth, allowing the baby to be tested for a panel of potentially life-threatening inherited disorders. This is a vital public health program, enabling early treatment of newborns with genetic disorders; for them, it can be the difference between a healthy life and an early death. But recent news suggests that police are seeking access to these newborn blood samples in criminal investigations. Such use of this trove of genetic material — to hunt for evidence that could implicate a child’s relative in a crime — endangers public trust in this vital health program and threatens all Americans’ right to genetic privacy.
A public records lawsuit filed in New Jersey this month details how police subpoenaed a newborn blood sample to investigate a 1996 cold case. While law enforcement’s desire to use these blood samples in criminal investigations was always a possibility — and one the ACLU has opposed — the increasing use of Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG) has only increased the government’s interest in easy access to people’s DNA. While few have heard of IGG, many have heard of its application to cold cases: One high-profile example is the 2018 identification of the Golden State Killer as former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. In IGG, DNA is isolated from a sample left at a crime scene and a rich genetic profile is created and uploaded to a genealogy website in order to map out family trees. In just four years since IGG first became public, its documented use by police has rapidly grown to nearly 200 investigations.