Texas Sued over Sale of Baby Blood Samples

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A civil rights group sued Texas health officials Wednesday over the sale and distribution of about 8,800 samples of baby blood to pharmaceutical companies and the military.

The federal lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project alleges officials at the Texas Department of State Health Services lied when they said the state had not sent the samples to private companies or federal agencies.

The group originally sued the state in 2009 over what it said was the improper collection of millions of baby blood samples without parental consent that were stored indefinitely for scientific research. State officials announced a settlement later that year that included destroying about 5 million of the blood samples.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in San Antonio seeks to recover and destroy the samples the group says were sold by the state to pharmaceutical companies and sent to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for DNA research. The plaintiffs also want state Health Commissioner Dr. David L. Lakey to pay $1,000 for every blood sample distributed.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two parents who don't know if their children's blood sample was sold. Civil Rights Project director Jim Harrington said the 8,800 figure was only an estimate and that there could be more.

Harrington said he believes the state profited more than $300,000 from the sale of the samples, which he said pharmaceutical companies and the military use for drug and medical research.

Jeff Higgins of San Antonio said he supports medical research but wouldn't want his 3-year-old daughter's blood sample to be given to the military.

"If they had asked us to participate and it was for non-profit human benefit, we would say yes and what else can we do?" Higgins said. "There is no circumstance I want my daughter's genetic material or DNA to be stored by any of the military."

Health Department spokeswoman Carrie Williams said in a statement that the agency had not yet seen the lawsuit and would not comment on specific allegations.

Williams said the agency considered the blood sample dispute closed when the settlement was reached in 2009.

"The state spent countless hours responding to their concerns in good faith, and we had come to a resolution that we all agree on, with the state destroying the bloodspots in question," Williams said.

Texas has been collecting blood samples for decades to screen for at least 27 different birth defects and other disorders. By law, the blood could be taken without consent by hospitals, birthing centers and midwives, and discarded after a certain period of time.

The state established a policy in 2002 in which it began setting aside the blood samples after the screenings were done and using some of it for research.

State lawmakers in 2009 tightened up procedures, extended privacy guarantees and gave parents the option to not participate. The settlement announced in December 2009 dealt with samples taken before the new law took effect.

Harrington said state officials were asked several times during negotiations whether the state sold or bartered any of the samples to drug companies or state or federal agencies.

According to the lawsuit, state officials, including Lakey, denied the samples had been sent to those outlets.

"They drew blood for a good reason, newborn screening, but then secretly and unlawfully sold, traded, bartered and distributed it, and were deceptive about it," Harrington said.

Williams said agency officials told the truth in the settlement but declined further comment.

"As part of the legal process, we provided information and truthfully answered everything they asked of us," Williams said.