Bill would offer mothers a baby’s DNA sample

Virginia hospitals will have to offer new mothers a take-home DNA sample from their baby under a bill approved at the request of the forensic sleuth who inspired the fictional crime fighter, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

Both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously approved House Bill 1836, sponsored by Delegate John O’Bannon, R-Henrico. The bill now goes to Gov. Bob McDonnell to be signed into law.

O’Bannon said the bill will give families a way to identify their child if something happens to the youngster.

“I feel it is something important,” O’Bannon said. “It is just a good thing to do.”

The baby’s DNA will come from a blood sample taken during the regular newborn screening. The blood can be taken from either a stick on the bottom of the infant’s foot or from “cord blood” – the blood taken from the infant’s umbilical cord. The blood then would be put on a blot sheet for the family to take home and keep.

The bill requires hospitals to offer the DNA sample, but that does not mean the mother must say yes. If a mother objects to having the blood sample taken, the hospital will not collect it.

O’Bannon brought the legislation before the General Assembly on behalf of Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia’s former chief medical examiner. Fierro performed autopsies and identifications on people who died in Virginia for 34 years. She was the inspiration for Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the lead character in Patricia Cornwell’s best-selling crime novels.

Fierro said her retirement in 2008 gave her the time she needed to work on passing this legislation. She said the DNA is important because there are few ways to identify young children. Hospitals take footprints from newborns, but Fierro said those can be useless.

“In 34 years as a medical examiner, I have never been able to identify someone from a footprint,” Fierro said.

She also noted that if a child is adopted, the adopted family’s DNA can’t be used to help with identification.

HB 1836 faced some opposition on its journey through the assembly. Fierro said the Virginia Healthcare Association was opposed at first. The group was concerned about costs and liability if medical complications occurred when a hospital drew an infant’s blood.

Fierro said the sample would cost less than $1, and she dismissed the concerns over liability.

“[Hospitals] have a hundred opportunities a day to kill you with errors, and they don’t. I would trust them 100 percent to take a blood sample,” Fierro said.

The association eventually changed its position and supported the bill.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, challenged the language of the proposed law, which consists of just 30 words:

“Every hospital providing maternity care shall offer to obtain a sample of blood from an infant born at the hospital and provide that sample to the mother of the infant.”

McEachin suggested that the bill may be unconstitutional because it says “mother.” He proposed an amendment to change that gender-specific word to “known parents.” The amendment was rejected, and McEachin voted in favor of the bill anyway.

O’Bannon said HB 1836 specified mother because the blood sample would be taken right after the child is born while the mother is in the room with the baby.

The only state with a law similar to HB 1836 is Florida, where 41 hospitals offer blood samples.

If the governor signs the bill, Virginia’s law will take effect in July 2012.

To track or comment on House Bill 1836, visit http://www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2011/hb1836
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