Genetics, Human Rights, and Transitional Justice: The Origins of DNA Identification Technologies in Post-dictatorial Argentina in the 1980s

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:10 AM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Alexandra Minna Stern, University of Michigan
This talk explores why and how Argentina became the epicenter for the development of new DNA identification technologies in the 1980s, catalyzed by the efforts of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. The human rights organization, founded during the military regime (1976-1983), worked toward the reunification of the children of the disappeared with their extended biological kin. Today the National Genetic Database (Banco Nacional de Datos Genéticos or BNDG) that processes familial reunification claims is incorporated into the Ministry of Science, but its origins started in the Immunology Clinic of the modest public Hospital Durand located in the middle-class neighborhood of Almagro in Buenos Aires. With funding from France and collective expertise from Argentine, U.S., and European geneticists, the assembly of the BNDG started in the mid-1980s. Shiny new machines were installed in the Hospital Durand and leading geneticists – including American Mary Claire King and formerly exiled Argentine Victor Penchaszadeh – designed new techniques to determine the biological relatedness of families that had lost a generation of young parents to forced disappearance. This novel technique, first used successfully in 1984, was called the “grandparentage index” and relied on statistical calculations of relatedness using genetic markers; since then, technologies have become more sophisticated and molecular. To date, 127 grandchildren (out of an estimated 500) have been reunited with their biological families. This talk delves into the genesis of the BNDG to unpack how human rights, emerging molecular genetics, and international scientific expertise converged to spur novel genetic methods that had far-reaching political, moral, and emotional implications in Argentina. These technologies have traveled to many other parts of the globe to serve as key instruments of human rights work in countries recovering from authoritarian regimes and state violence. They also have promoted genetic essentialism in understandings of law, family, and identity.
<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation