Blood Match: Elections and Identity in the DNA Age

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Left on the doorstep of the Jaro Cathedral in Iloilo as a baby, she was eventually adopted by the King and Queen of Philippine movies, Fernando Poe, Jr. and Susan Roces. Photo from http://gracepoe.ph/meet-grace/

Left on the doorstep of the Jaro Cathedral in Iloilo as a baby, she was eventually adopted by the King and Queen of Philippine movies, Fernando Poe, Jr. and Susan Roces. Photo from http://gracepoe.ph/meet-grace/

The case that thrust the saga of blood and identity currently playing out in the country’s presidential race into the public eye began almost 48 years in a church in Jaro, Iloilo.

According to facts from both the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the Supreme Court (SC), the foundling now named Mary Grace Natividad S. Poe-Llamanzares or Grace Poe was abandoned as an infant in the parish church of Jaro and found by a man named Edgardo Militar. Care for the infant was later transferred to a relative, Emiliano Militar and his wife.

When she was five, the man known to many as Fernando Poe Jr. (Ronald Allan Kelley Poe) and his wife, Susan Roces (Jesusa Sonora Poe) filed a petition for Grace’s adoption at the Municipal Trial Court (MTC) of San Juan – one that was granted in 1974.

In December 2015 – more than 15 years since becoming a naturalized American citizen, 11 years since her adoptive father passed away, and more than 9 years since re-acquiring Philippine citizenship – Poe’s Certificate of Candidacy (COC) for the Presidency was cancelled by a Comelec majority decision. One of the primary reasons cited for this cancellation was Poe’s supposed misrepresentation of her status as a natural-born Filipino citizen to suit her intent to run for President . Finally in March 2016- the Supreme Court ruled that Poe is qualified to run for president, without requiring proof of any relationship to Filipino parents.

Blood Relations

The primary dispute to Poe’s claim of natural-born citizenship is perhaps best captured by the Tatad Petition, filed by Francisco S. Tatad and included with two others to have been raffled to the Comelec’s First Division.

According to that petition, the governing Constitution in 1968 (Poe’s birth year) was the 1935 Constitution . This document defines Philippine citizens as, “those whose fathers are Filipino citizens and those whose mothers are Filipino citizens and, upon reaching the age of majority, elect Philippine citizenship”.

The jus sanguinis principle or ‘rule of blood relations’, which the decision states was retained by both the 1973 and 1987 Constitutions, required Poe to definitively show her blood relationship to a Filipino parent. It also, consistent with Section 2, Article IV of the 1987 Constitution, required her demonstrate that no other act was necessary to complete or perfect her citizenship.

Natural-born citizenship is required to qualify and be eligible for the elective position of President. According to the Comelec decision, however, Poe’s inability to show direct blood relations with a Filipino parent since hers are unknown means she cannot claim natural-born status. Thus they could not declare her natural-born “without violating (their) solemn duty and oath to the Constitution”.

While DNA tests were not the basis for her camp’s arguments in the Supreme Court, this has not stopped Poe from undergoing them in the hopes of finding her biological kin.

One prominent case in this series was the testing of unspecified individuals now living in the US, where the results were to be submitted to the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) . Another was the testing of Lorena Rodriguez-Dechavez, a supposed aunt from Guimaras, Iloilo.

In the latter case, Dechavez and her family members offered not only to be tested, but for the exhumation of their deceased father to determine if they were related to the presidential aspirant. All tests have thus far turned out negative.

Despite these results, however, the whole affair has brought one important truth into focus.

It is that while issues of identity and belonging are still central questions for 21st century citizens, new tools have been developed that add richness and dimension to the classic debates. Like other powerful tools, they have both the potential to provide deep insight as well as be gravely misunderstood.

In the series of events that befell Senator Poe, one of these tools was DNA-based Parentage Testing.

No Strangers

While high-profile cases are by no means common, the DNA Analysis Laboratory (DAL) of the UP Natural Sciences Research Institute headed by Dr. Maria Corazon A. De Ungria have intimate knowledge of the issues and misconceptions surrounding this particular use of DNA.

While DAL, which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this May 2016, is sometimes better known for their role in criminal investigations, doing testing for parentage is one of its most prominent extension services.

They have been involved in prominent cases involving paternity, such as Rosendo Herrera vs. Rosendo Alba (G.R. No. 148220), where the Supreme Court defined the minimum value of Probability of Paternity – which today stands at 99.9% – forever changing Philippine jurisprudence.

De Ungria, who was joined by fellow UP REPS (Research Extension and Professional Staff) Paul Ryan Sales and Nelvie Jane Soliven in the interview, believes that the Grace Poe case is one where DNA could have assisted in clarifying what would ultimately be an issue of identity- one that would be national in its consequences.

During the height of Poe’s DNA testing, many false impressions arose with respect to what answers DNA could provide, and its limitations. Some were due to public unfamiliarity with the law and the complexities of its interpretations. Others, however, were due to unfamiliarity with DNA, and the process of testing itself.

The UP REPS that have been part of DAL from the very beginning have made it their mission to fill gaps in the public’s perception of what DNA can and cannot do. While most people know that DNA tests usually begin with blood extraction or the collection of biological samples from persons involved, not everybody is familiar with the science behind DNA testing.

Mothers and Fathers

DNA or ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’ is a chemical molecule composed of sugar and nitrogen bases. There are four nitrogen bases namely adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T) and cytosine (C). DNA molecules are the main building blocks of the human genome, which in turn functions to contain the entire genetic blueprint that codes for all the proteins needed for our metabolism. In human identification and filiation testing, scientists target a selected population of DNA that includes the so-called “Short Tandem Repeats” or STRs.

Each STR is characterized by certain motif of nitrogen bases, say, ‘GTCA’ which are repeated several times. The number of repeated motifs per person vary and may therefore be used to differentiate amongst different individuals. Laboratories such as DAL can therefore determine the number of times a specific STR DNA is repeated in a person’s DNA. The resulting combination of different STR data per person comprises that person’s DNA profile, and each profile barring identical twins, is unique to an individual.

The fact that we inherit our DNA from our biological parents paved the way for the use of DNA in determining filiation and kinship. Basically, human DNA is composed of 2 sets of chromosomes, with one set of 23 chromosomes originating from the person’s biological mother and the other set from the person’s biological father. A person’s DNA profile can then be compared with those of his/her parents to determine if they are related. This is the basis of DNA-based parentage testing. This technology was the used in evaluating Grace Poe’s relationship with her potential parents/siblings/kin.

To date, DAL routinely generates a DNA profile composed of 20 STRs for human identification and parentage testing. In more complex cases or cases wherein the alleged father cannot be located, additional STRs targeting male-specific STRs located only on a male person’s Y chromosome can be included.

To generate the DNA profile, samples are analyzed in a DNA sequencer via a standard molecular procedure known as capillary electrophoresis wherein migration of DNA across two oppositely charged points varies depending on fragment size. The migration of DNA is detected using a laser which allows the researcher to record the size of that particular DNA fragment. The data points are then analyzed and compiled to generate a DNA profile. The DNA profile of a child is then compared with the DNA profiles of persons that could be his/her parents/kin, to evaluate the possibility of blood relationship.

If the child’s DNA profile do not match with those of the “alleged parent/s” in three or more STR-DNA, then the conclusion is that the child is not related to the other persons who were tested. On the other hand, when the STR-DNA matches between alleged parent and child, then the DNA analyst will proceed to statistical analysis and calculate the Probability of Paternity. If the Probability of Paternity value is 99.9% and greater, the Court is guided to presume paternity.

Biological and Legal

When read against these details, and in light of what was presumably required for a candidate to run, it is clear that DNA testing which is currently recognized as the most powerful tool for human identification, could provide the answer to the question of filiation.

Assuming that close blood relatives can be found, Sales said that DNA analysis can easily determine if the Senator is related to them with a high degree of probability. “Blood relation – it can definitely show that.” Sales was careful, however, in claiming that DNA by itself could establish citizenship. “I don’t want to use the term citizenship,” he admits. Citizenship was a legal rather than a biological construct.

Another issue that DNA can likely give insight into is the likelihood of a certain person’s belonging to a particular nation or group. It can, Sales says, show in terms of probabilities if a person’s DNA ‘lumps’ or is consistent with the observed frequencies in a certain nation or group.

The STRs currently used by the DAL, however, are not ancestry-informative. There is a different type of marker capable of determining ancestry called ‘ancestry-informative SNPs’. The observed frequencies at each marker are what help researchers or analysts determine the region or group that DNA would cluster with.

The Philippine population has no comprehensive database of these SNPs. This is why the DAL is working on a number of projects focused on database expansion, including the country’s various ethnolinguistic groups.

“You can use DNA as a tool to help prove or disprove citizenship,” he said. As the status of being a citizen (and natural-born, at that) is a construction of the law, however, its determination Sales said must be left to the law. “You can give the law the data based on DNA,” he clarified, “but it is the law that determines whether these data can or should be used to determine citizenship”.

Probabilities

In a recent 47-page main decision, the Justices of the Supreme Court did indeed make their decision. Without the aid of any blood relative or DNA match and to the tune of a 9-6 vote, the SC declared Poe to be qualified candidate for the Philippine Presidency. Apart from declaring the presumption of being natural-born under domestic and international law for foundlings, among other things, the decision stated that there was more than enough evidence for Poe’s own natural-born status.

To establish the latter, the SC turned to another set of probabilities altogether–the ones of being a natural-born Filipino delivered at around the time of Poe’s birth.

These came, in part, from national data supplied by the Solicitor General (SolGen) from 1965-1975 and census data for Iloilo in 1960 and 1970, with ratios of Filipinos and non-Filipino children born within that span. The probability of being natural-born in the one-decade span was 99.83%, the SolGen claimed.

Other circumstantial clues include her being abandoned in a Roman Catholic Church and her “typical Filipino features”.

Despite its lack of influence in this final decision, the DAL team hope that the nationwide attention garnered by Poe’s DNA testing will spur more discussion on the technology’s importance and potential impact.

Soliven, a fellow researcher at the Lab in particular, is particular about discussions dispelling erroneous ideas about DNA – and its testers.

One, she and the team cited, was the ‘CSI Effect’, where many expects researchers to slide samples into a machine and produce results in minutes. In reality, this is not always the case given the current technology available. While the laboratory procedures may be completed in a day, the entire process – including the review of results – can take days.

Another is the impression that one can do an analysis on anything – without a person’s consent. There are stories of hairbrushes and toothbrushes being offered for sample extraction (the Lab’s procedure for analyzing DNA in hair has not yet been validated). Other clients would ring up the lab to insist on a test for paternity – without taking a sample from the father or even the child.

Identity itself, however, is what De Ungria states to be the most important concept to be debated in light of the entire Grace Poe issue. “Who you are as a person, who you are in a family, who you are as a nation” – all these need to be re-thought in light of what DNA can now tell us about ourselves.

“The bottom line is,” De Ungria said, “no one is an island. Your DNA is not only your own. It is your mother and your father, your tribe and your nation. Since there is more than yourself, there is a clear social dimension to it”.

Beyond becoming a tool to rethink identity and social connections, she believes DNA has been a catalyst for change since the establishment of DAL 16 May 1996 through a Memorandum of Agreement between the University of the Philippines and the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission. “However, we have not maximized the potential of DNA in providing objective answers to current questions that impact the lives of individuals as well as the life of our nation as a whole”, she quips.

For these and many other scenarios, the DAL team believes that 2016, with its political and social significance, is the perfect year to initiate such a discussion.

“A national discussion,” Soliven added.

The DNA Analysis Laboratory will be celebrating its 20th anniversary by holding the 3rd Forensic Science Symposium 2016, with the theme, ‘DNA as a Catalyst for Change’on May 16-17 at the SEAMEO Innotech in Quezon City. It will feature local and international speakers discussing the applications of DNA science to the criminal justice system and the impact of DNA technology in strengthening the conduct of forensics-driven investigations in the Philippine and global landscapes.

3rd fss-poster

Sign up for the Symposium by visiting: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/3rd-forensic-science-symposium-2016-registration-22101756950. For more info, follow event updates at: https://www.facebook.com/ForensicsScienceSymposium/ or email: [email protected]


Notes

Macas, T. (2016, February 2). Justices question Comelec on ‘material misrepresentation’ ruling vs. Poe. GMA News. Retrieved from http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/553722/news/nation/justices-question-comelec-on-material-misrepresentation-ruling-vs-poe

Main Decision (Grace Poe. Comelec First Division – December 11, 2015). Retrieved from: http://www.scribd.com/doc/297826612/292991467-Main-Decision-Grace-Poe-Comelec-1st-division-December-11-2015-pdf#scribd

Amo, C. (2015, October 27). Poe hopes DNA results will be out this week. Philippine Star. Retrieved from http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2015/10/27/1515289/poe-hopes-dna-results-will-be-out-week

Zaragosa, B. (2015, December 30) Bodies of Poe’s ‘biological’ parents exhumed. ABS CBN News. Retrieved December 30, 2015, from http://news.abs-cbn.com/halalan2016/nation/12/30/15/bodies-of-poes-biological-parents-exhumed

De Ungria, M. A., Ph.D. (2013, April 18). The double helix in court: DNA as catalyst for change. Philippine Star. Retrieved from http://www.philstar.com/science-and-technology/2013/04/18/931762/double-helix-court-dna-catalyst-change

Supreme Court En Banc. Mary Grace Natividad S. Poe Llamanzares vs. Commission on Elections and Estrella V. Elamparo; Mary Grace Natividad S. Poe Llamanzares vs. Commission on Elections, Francisco S. Tatad, Antonio P. Contreras and Amado D. Valdez (G.R. Nos. 221797 & 221698-700). Retrieved from: http://w

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