What does the Chinese military want with your unborn baby’s genetic data?

Could data harvested from millions of pregnant women pave the way for genetically enhanced super-soldiers? According to a recent Reuters investigation, BGI Group, the manufacturers of a popular prenatal test, is working with the Chinese military towards that very goal.

BGI group offers a test called Nifty (“Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY”), which is offered in more than 50 countries and is used to look for genetic abnormalities such as Down’s syndrome early on in a pregnancy. According to Reuters, more than 8 million women have taken these tests, and BGI has used the genetic data it has collected to help the Chinese military improve “population quality”. Reuters reports that US government advisers have warned that access to this massive databank could “propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target the US population or food supply”. BGI has issued a statement rejecting these claims.

“China is stealing your intimate data for evil purposes” is a popular genre in western journalism – see, for example, the breathless reporting last year about whether the Chinese government is using TikTok to spy on people. But let’s be very clear here: western companies are doing exactly the same thing. The idea that it is somehow scarier when China does it smacks of Sinophobia. DNA is big business now and there is really no knowing who has your most intimate information, who they’ve sold it on to, and what those companies or governments are doing with it. Last year, for example, the private equity company Blackstone acquired Ancestry.com, which has 18 million people in “the world’s largest consumer DNA network”. Blackstone has said it has no plans to monetize that DNA but many bioethicists and privacy activists are highly skeptical of those claims. They didn’t shell out close to $5bn just for the hell of it did they? Meanwhile, the British government is on a massive data grab, and looks a lot like it is trying monetize the medical histories of everyone in England. The government has been striking secretive deals with controversial big data companies like Palantir, which are funded by the CIA.

The Reuters investigation into BGI is a reminder that there isn’t a single aspect of our lives (perhaps not even our dreams) that isn’t being murkily mined and monetized. Indeed, it seems as if our data is being sold on before we’re even out of the womb. But beyond the “big business is evil” element, there’s also another dimension to this story. While I have no idea whether the Chinese government really is using data from prenatal tests to create genetically enhanced soldiers, these sorts of tests are being used to cherry-pick the genetics of the next generation. The ability to test a fetus for genetic abnormalities via a non-invasive blood test early on in pregnancy (known as NIPT tests) is a relatively recent phenomenon with enormous ethical ramifications. My partner had an NIPT test as a matter of course during her pregnancy and as we waited for the results I stressed about what we’d do if the result came back “abnormal”. Would we abort? If we did abort would that make us monsters or was it the sensible thing to do?

We never had to make that difficult decision – but plenty of other people have. In an excellent article for the Atlantic last year called “the last children of Down Syndrome” Sarah Zhang notes that Denmark became one of the first countries in the world to offer prenatal Down’s syndrome screening to every pregnant woman in 2004: “suddenly, a new power was thrust into the hands of ordinary people – the power to decide what kind of life is worth bringing into the world.” Almost everyone in Denmark chooses to take the test and 95% of those who get a Down’s syndrome diagnosis choose to abort. “Few people speak publicly about wanting to ‘eliminate’ Down syndrome,” Zhang writes. “Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.” We talk a lot about the immense power that large corporations now have thanks to big data – but we have some of that power too. Eugenics is slowly and stealthily being normalized.

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