Sunday, May 27, 2012

Science and governance

published 16 May 2012 - MST page 5

Maria Corazon de Ungria, head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory of the University of the Philippines-Natural Sciences Research Institute, was on cable television last month. In an episode of the show “Partners in Crime” aired over the Crime and Investigation Channel, De Ungria explains how DNA technology in the Philippines can help bring justice by providing forensic basis of a person’s guilt or innocence.

It’s hardly CSI, but the point is that the science is here and could do wonders in the justice system—if only we knew how to use it to the maximum.

But that’s exactly the DNA expert’s point—we don’t.

De Ungria can think of many good opportunities where science can be tapped to achieve great ends. There is, for instance, the problem of trafficking, across national borders or within Philippine borders.

Imagine a middle-aged woman at a port, who has just come from a faraway province down south. She has five teenaged girls in tow. When asked who these girls are, she quickly says they are her nieces. End of story.

How should anybody know that the woman makes these trips several times a year, bringing different sets of “nieces”? Who is to say she brings them to the big city not for a vacation, but to become sex workers or unwitting wives of foreigners?

DNA profiling can help ascertain whether such “aunts” are telling the truth. Science establishes blood relationships, no questions asked.

De Ungria also points to news clippings about mothers selling their babies to pay for their hospital bills. At first blush, it is a heart-wrenching story: A mother, driven by poverty and desperation, goes against human nature (of protecting her child) and does the unthinkable. But think again: How do we know she is really the mother, not some stranger who snatched a child away from its parents? Again, DNA can help establish the relationship between the child and its purported natural parent. De Ungria believes that parents, when reporting a lost child, should provide DNA samples immediately for comparison.

And then, when a rape is reported, the use of a so-called rape kit is not mandated at all. Physical examinations do not automatically include collecting DNA specimens from the victim, which could be used to pin down suspects later on even when testimonial evidence is not available or becomes problematic.

Unfortunately, sample taking is not automatic. Remember that the application of DNA technology is a comparison. DNA specimen from a crime scene is compared with the sample taken from a suspect. When there is only one sample, no comparison is possible. When there are two, and they match, you know who did the crime. No ifs, no buts.

The law, too, says that foreigners may not receive organs from non-related Filipinos. But how come kidney trafficking, for instance, has become controversial in the Philippines? Hospitals performing transplants must ascertain that the donor and the recipient are blood relatives. But apart from the say-so of the parties (not always in the interest of truth, of course), we have no way of knowing.

De Ungria recalls reports about an entire community in the Baseco compound in Manila where the majority of residents have one kidney left. Alas, “consent” and “informed consent” are two different things. Middlemen lure poor people into selling their organs, without telling them of the consequences. They then become sickly. They get the money, sure, but it lasts them a month. And then they have to live with poor health, a diminished earning capacity and additional expenses for medicines for the rest of their lives.

***

The problem is not actually science, De Ungria believes. Ultimately it is one of governance, of heads of government agencies deliberately steering their organizations to a direction where opportunities are maximized, efforts are coordinated and plans of action are communicated down to the lowest levels of the organization.

Clearly this is not the case. De Ungria observes disjointedness, hits and misses, ad hoc efforts and a vague sense of drifting along. There are occasional gains, of course, but there is no follow through—and hence nothing gets done.

As usual.

Sure, De Ungria and her group are able to touch base with some government agencies, train personnel and generally make them aware of what could and must be done. They have had some good results, too. But there is the perennial worry: Is this enough? Are they talking to the right people? Are they even making a dent?

De Ungria believes that Cabinet members—especially Health Secretary Enrique Ona, Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo—should put their heads together and coordinate their efforts to achieve the level of operational cooperation that would trickle down to their subordinates.

De Ungria holds a doctorate and has published numerous articles in international journals. She is the leading expert on DNA in the country. Then again, one does not really need such credentials to feel strongly about what’s wrong with the way our government addresses gaping holes in the system. One only has to be a Filipino who cares.

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