Elizabeth Warren Has Set a Dangerous Precedent

Will other politicians be bullied into releasing their genetic information, too?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren listens during a town hall meeting in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on Saturday.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren listens during a town hall meeting in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on Saturday.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

On May 26, 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted, “I find it offensive that Goofy Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, pretended to be Native American to get in Harvard.” It was a classic of the Trump insult-tweet genre: so offensive it demanded refutation but so juvenile it diminished anyone compelled to engage with it. For two years, Trump has returned to the insult again and again, culminating with his July 5 challenge to Warren to take a DNA test. He declared he would pay $1 million to the charity of Warren’s choice if it showed Native American ancestry. At the time, Warren responded with scorn. On Monday, however, she released a DNA test which points definitively to Warren having a real (if quite small) percentage of Native American ancestry, which she has long said traced back to a great-great-great-grandmother. She used the release to force Trump first into an awkward denial of his own words, and then into a bit of bluster shaded with physical threat.

Conservative commentators dismissed the reveal as lackluster at best. On the left, some bemused approval was quickly overshadowed by debates about the unique issues of identity faced by Native Americans, many of whom expressed serious concern about the entire situation. (Of course, Warren isn’t applying for tribal membership: She is trying to verify a family story and put an end to a murky and difficult situation that some see as at odds with her reputation for moral clarity.) But her decision may end up having a wider and very negative long-term impact beyond the very valid concerns of Native Americans. Just as Trump’s harangues were enough to force a sitting president to reveal his own birth certificate, they have now led a potential presidential candidate to reveal her DNA, or at least elements of it. She has granted a political opponent the power to demand something no politician has ever successfully demanded before.

Warren is well-aware of the dangers posed when someone loses control of their genetic privacy. Indeed, she co-sponsored the 2016 Genetic Research Privacy Protection Act, which sought to strengthen privacy protections for patients and research subjects. Though it never passed, much of the bill’s language was incorporated in that year’s 21st Century Cures Act. As Warren said at the time, “Families should have complete confidence that [their genetic information] will remain private.” But laws are one thing—social expectations are another. By volunteering her DNA, Warren has created a new expectation: the idea that a politician’s genetics, not just their health information, should be open to review.

It was inevitable, perhaps. But it brings much closer what Robert Green and George Annas called “the threat of genetic McCarthyism” in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008. As they noted, medical history has become fair game in the press in recent years, beginning with the 1972 withdrawal of vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton over a hospitalization for depression. We learned the true depth of the illnesses suffered by past presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. The revelation of Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s raised questions about his performance in office.

When John McCain and Barack Obama released their health information in 2008, they picked and chose revelations that would put them in the best light. Obama displayed his energy on the basketball court (and the beach) while avoiding mention of his grandfather’s death from prostate cancer in the brief health summary he gave the press. McCain talked about his mother’s sharpness at 95 but not his father’s heart attack at 70. In a world where a candidate’s DNA can be shared, this information would soon be twisted by the dark art of spin, and we would find ourselves bombarded by competing interpretations of the same data. As Green and Annas wrote:

During future campaigns, presidential candidates could release information about parts of their own genomes in order to highlight what might be considered a favorable ethnic background or, if they have already had a disease such as cancer, to highlight the absence of genes that confer a risk of recurrence. But in a climate of negative personal and political messages, it is more likely that persons or groups opposing a candidate will release such information, hoping to harm his or her chances for election or reelection.

Proponents of open government and disclosure might say this is all to the good. How does this demand differ from the right to see someone’s, say, tax returns? But the right to know and understand a person’s actions and character is very different from the right to look inside a person and issue declarations about their genetic destiny. You can draw conclusions about someone by seeing the paper trail of their actions. For all the furor in some circles over Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry, we can only draw the conclusion that she listened to her mother as a child.

How long will it be until a candidate finds herself effectively disqualified over a 10 percent chance of one disease or a 20 percent chance of another? An older candidate might assert that younger opponents had a greater chance of Alzheimer’s. A candidate might demand his opponent test her children’s DNA after rumors of infidelity “so we can all move on.” And another candidate might find themselves under pressure to share their DNA to verify heritage—even though the use of genetic testing for this purpose is extremely limited. Our reductive, even primitive understanding of how our genes relate to racial identity and health has produced yet another hurdle for future presidential candidates to leap (or find another way around). While it may not happen in 2020 or even 2024, it is not that far a step from the results Warren has released to the day when a candidate’s full genome is posted for review.

A power revealed soon becomes a power abused. Until Monday, Trump’s bluster was just bluster. Warren deflected his attacks, and similar attacks from her 2012 opponent Scott Brown, with relative ease. But now she has set a precedent. The “mismeasure of man” has never been prevented by new tests; it has only been shunted down new paths. We will live to see qualified candidates driven from politics over small potential flaws uncovered in their genetic makeup. We will see our nation retreat further from rational discourse, as objective proof is futilely offered and then sacrificed as “junk science” in the name of political skirmishing. President Trump will not be the last bully to demand the right to rummage through an opponent’s DNA. We must hope that Warren will be the last for a long time to allow it.