That officials at Howard University Medical School have decided to collect DNA samples of approximately 25,000 African Americans over the next five years is welcome news. African Americans suffer from diseases such as stroke, hypertension, diabetes and others at a higher rate… That officials at Howard University Medical School have decided to collect DNA samples of approximately 25,000 African Americans over the next five years is welcome news. African Americans suffer from diseases such as stroke, hypertension, diabetes and others at a higher rate than Whites. African Americans are not, however, generally represented in the pools from which samples are taken for use in research to find cures for these diseases.
Dr. Marion Gray Secundy, the late sister of former Congressman William Gray who was a medical ethicist at the Howard University Medical School, sponsored a conference in 1999 on the inclusion of Blacks in genetic testing. She assumed that Blacks should be included in clinical trials as medical researchers explore cures for various diseases, an effort that will grow in scope and intensity now that the human genome has been decoded. The decoding of the human genome at the National Institutes of Health was completed two years sooner than expected and at a cost of $400 million less than budgeted because of advances in computer technology and biomedical research.
We have entered an era, in which the molecular genetic sciences have made some astounding linkages to a few diseases, giving us a hint of what is to come. But it also has been suggested that by understanding the genetic structure of an individual, one also can project aspects of that person’s behavior. Already, some corporations are interested in genetic screening for their employees that they might determine in advance what diseases or other maladies their worker may exhibit. This brings up the issue of privacy of medical records and whether it is lawful for corporations to insist that prospective employees take a blood test.
This practice would be troublesome because it proposes that we live in a world where our biological make up might be used to pre-ordain certain behaviors, such as various forms of criminality and aggression. In fact, there already have been studies funded by the National Institutes of Health on whether violence or aggression in some youths is inherited. Such research has been specifically focused on Black and Hispanic children.
In 1993, there was a project in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) known as the “violence initiative.” HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan, an African American, had rounded up all of the programs spread throughout the large agency and put them under one programmatic tent to emphasize the fact that he and the president were concerned about this issue. The impetus driving this initiative was the violence emanating from the drug trade, which fostered not only high murder rates, but also high rates of incarceration for Black and Hispanics youth.
The dangerous part of this project was that the National Institute of Mental Health was doing research to find genetic markers for certain behaviors. The head of the institute, Dr. Richard Goodwin, said that progress on finding a solution to violence among youth was within reach. All that was needed was to find the genetic marker for violence on the gene, determine who was susceptible to violent or aggressive behavior and then medicalize the carrier before the age of five.
This caused a great uproar and Goodwin was called before the Congressional Black Caucus to explain what he meant. As it turned out, his comment revealed what was occurring in the scientific establishment.
Blacks have a long history of distrusting the medical establishment, especially for the reason cited above. But there are other reasons, among them the infamous syphilis experiment at Tuskegee, Ala., before World War II and the attempt to study the brains of Blacks who were active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
If Howard University, a trusted institution among Blacks, is involved in the collection and preservation of DNA records and