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What does the Chinese military want with your unborn baby’s genetic data? | Arwa Mahdawi



Your unborn baby is already making money

Could data harvested from millions of pregnant women pave the way for genetically improved super-soldiers? According to a recent Reuters study, BGI Group, the makers of a popular prenatal test, are working with the Chinese military toward this very goal.

The BGI group offers a test called Nifty (“Non-invasive fetal trisomY”), which is offered in more than 50 countries and is used to look for genetic abnormalities such as Down syndrome in early pregnancy. According to Reuters, more than 8 million women have taken these tests, and BGI has used the genetic data they have collected to help the Chinese military improve “population quality”

;. Reuters reports that U.S. government advisers have warned that access to this massive database could “drive China to dominate global drugs and also potentially lead to genetically engineered soldiers or engineered pathogens to target the U.S. population or food supply.” BGI has issued a statement rejecting these claims.

“China steals your intimate data for malicious purposes” is a popular genre in Western journalism – see, for example, last year’s breathless reporting on whether the Chinese government uses TikTok to spy on people. But let’s be very clear here: Western companies are doing exactly the same thing. The idea that it is somehow scarier when China does that tastes of synophobia. DNA is big business now and there is really no one to know who has your most intimate information, who they have sold it to and what these companies or governments are doing with it. Last year, for example, bought Private equity firm Blackstone Ancestry.com, which has 18 million people in “the world’s largest consumer DNA network”. Blackstone has said they have no plans to monetize this DNA, but many bioethicists and privacy activists are very skeptical of these claims. They did not jump close to $ 5 billion just for the hell of it, did they? Meanwhile, the UK government is on a massive data grab and looks a lot like it is trying to monetize all medical histories in England. The government has struck secret agreements with controversial big data companies like Palantir, which is funded by the CIA.

Reuters investigation into BGI is a reminder that there is not a single aspect of our lives (maybe not even our dreams) that is not pushed out and monetized. In fact, it seems that our data is resold before we ourselves are out of the womb. But beyond the element of “big business is evil”, there is another dimension to this story. Although I have no idea whether the Chinese government really uses data from prenatal tests to create genetically improved soldiers, this kind of test is used to pick the genetics of the next generation. The ability to test a fetus for genetic abnormalities via a non-invasive blood test early in pregnancy (known as NIPT tests) is a relatively new phenomenon with enormous ethical consequences. My partner had a NIPT test for granted during pregnancy, and while we were waiting for the results, I stressed what we would do if the result came back “abnormal”. Would we interrupt? If we interrupted, would that make us monsters, or was that the sensible thing to do?

We never had to make the difficult decision – but many other people have. In an excellent article for the Atlantic last year called “the last children of Down’s syndrome”, Sarah Zhang notes that Denmark became one of the first countries in the world to offer prenatal Down syndrome screening in 2004: “suddenly a new power was thrown into the hands on ordinary people – the power to decide what kind of life it is worth bringing into the world. “Almost everyone in Denmark chooses to take the test, and 95% of those who are diagnosed with Down syndrome choose to discontinue. “Few people talk publicly about wanting to ‘eliminate’ Down syndrome,” Zhang writes. “Yet individual choices add something very close to it.” We talk a lot about the enormous power that big business now has thanks to big data. – but we also have some of that power.Eugenics is normalizing slowly and insidiously.

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