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California Legislators' Effort to Prevent Student DNA Testing Could Come Too Late

A new bill is designed to halt Berkeley's controversial genetic testing project



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State legislators have lined up a bill aimed at preventing the University of California, Berkeley, from executing a controversial program that asks new students to participate in genetic testing as part of a fall semester orientation program. But even if the bill becomes law, it will likely be too late to halt DNA collection because campus officials began mailing saliva sampling kits to about 5,500 incoming freshmen and transfer students this week, whereas the legislation cannot come up for a vote before August 2. U.C. Berkeley's fall semester begins on August 19, with welcome activities from August 23 to 27. Jasper Rine, the Berkeley biologist heading the genetic testing project, has scheduled an on-campus public lecture for September 13 to discuss the aggregated results of students' tests.

The proposed legislation, as it appears currently online, directs the University of California system (including Berkeley) and the California State University system to "refrain from making an unsolicited request to an enrolled or prospective student of that segment for a DNA sample for the purpose of genetic testing," but does not prohibit "a licensed health care provider in a university facility from performing genetic testing and counseling in the course of a patient’s medical care."

The bill, authored by Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton) who represents the 72nd district, also requires universities to report the total costs of any genetic testing efforts so that an equivalent amount can be deducted from the school's funding.

The bill's authors, however, plan to update the language, according to an Assembly Republican Caucus Office of Policy staffer who asked not to be named. First, the meaning of the term "unsolicited" will be clarified. Although the Berkeley program is voluntary, all new students will soon receive via mail a saliva sample kit, informed consent document, and background material addressing relevant scientific and ethical issues, regardless of their intent to participate. The bill's authors want to label this approach as unsolicited. Second, the bill will no longer require universities to report the cost of genetic testing itself, but rather the cost of any legal judgments or settlements that arise as a consequence of genetic testing on students.

The bill was introduced as an emergency measure and would take effect as soon as it passes, but is currently sitting in the State Senate. Members of the legislature recently entered a summer recess and will not return until August 2. When they reconvene, the Senate Rules Committee will determine which committees should hear the bill, if any. If the statute secures majority votes from those committees—which are expected to be those charged with health and education—it will further require a two thirds vote from the entire Senate and subsequently another two thirds vote from the full Assembly to pass.

Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences at Berkeley and one of the orientation program's organizers, says the university has made no changes of any kind to its genetic testing program in response to the bill, although it concerns him.

"The bill is concerning in that it appears to be a legislative atempt to dictate aspects of the curriculum at the university," Schlissel says. "The notion that an individual legislator can object to something we are doing on a curricular basis and turn it into legislation is chilling because educational policy is the privy of educators."

Schlissel adds that right now he has no specific plan of action should the bill pass. "The timing of things are such that the envelopes are going out to students right now and the California legislature is taking a summer holiday," he says.

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