DNA testing: Ethical considerations

In my last post we looked at the possibility of unexpected information when we receive the results of our autosomal DNA test, and the importance of being fully aware of this as a possibility before we consent or ask others to consent to the test.  We noted that ‘unexpected results’ might take the form of finding our own parentage or descent from recent generations is not supported by the DNA.  Alternatively, the results might show that we are most definitely biologically linked to our parents and grandparents, but that someone else is too – someone of whom we had no knowledge.

Both findings can be upsetting at least and devastating at worst.  As a member of online genealogy groups, I occasionally see posts from distressed group members, formerly so excited to receive their DNA results but now trying to come to terms with the fact that ‘Dad’ is not really father, or ‘Granddad’ is not really grandfather.  What I say is this: the man you knew as your Dad is still your Dad.  The Granddad who loved you is still your Granddad.  You were meant to have this connection, even if biologically he’s not part of you.  But now you have another ancestral line to research too – one that might reveal other fascinating stories and might help you feel ‘complete’, even answer some questions you had about yourself, like where your dimples or your violet-blue eyes came from.  We might even call it your ‘nature’ tree and your ‘nurture’ tree: both have made you who you are.

Again, through online genealogy groups, I know of group members experiencing conflict within their own families regarding digging up the past and poking about in people’s lives.  My view is that if this is a hobby you love and from which you derive much pleasure and mental stimulation, then you should do it, but it’s important to do so in a way that respects the feelings and sensitivities of those who wish you wouldn’t.  Although no skeletons have been revealed in my own DNA testing, my documentary research has uncovered stories that I simply couldn’t have shared with my parents and grandparents.  In some cases the difference in sensitivities might be a generational thing: certain things were not discussed, were considered shameful and kept secret.  In other cases it might simply be a question of proximity to the subject of the story: the great grandfather who died long before we were born was our own parent’s grandfather, and may have been much loved and best left that way.  How much more sensitive, then, if the story relates to an extra-marital affair, the proof of which is now before you in the form of a match at second cousin.  It’s simply a matter of being sensitive to the needs and sensibilities of others.

On the other hand, in the case of an extra-marital affair – an illegitimate or adopted child – there are the needs of that person to consider too.  I said in my last post that I will always do what I can to help a good DNA match to track down their parents.  In one case the biological father turned out to be a (deceased) cousin of one of my parents – although there were several brothers in the family and without further DNA testing I can’t say which one.  In those circumstances I had no qualms about making available the name of the family to my ‘new’ second cousin.  It would in any case be available via other online trees.  It’s true that in those ‘Long Lost Family’ programmes on TV there is generally a happy ending of sorts.  Indeed, an acquaintance of mine was so happy to learn that a long-ago pre-marital relationship of her late father had produced a child, now to be welcomed into the family as a long-lost half-brother, that she circulated an email to everyone on her contacts list, with photographs of the new family group, highlighting the very strong family resemblance.

However, the reality isn’t always like that.  A biological mother who put her child up for adoption might have spent fifty years thinking of her lost child but it may be a secret she fully intends to take to her grave.  She may be ashamed to admit the truth to her family.  I know someone who, a few days after his mother’s death, discovered the birth certificate of his long-ago adopted half-sister in his mother’s handbag.  In life, she had never had the courage to tell her children, yet clearly that firstborn child had never been far from her thoughts, and she wanted her remaining children to know.

I’m aware that I’m writing about all this from the perspective of someone who has not experienced it.  For someone who is that child or perhaps their half-sibling, the reality is very different.  No one should feel like a ‘dirty little secret’.  This article, although US-based, deals with the issue from the viewpoint of test-takers who have learned they are the result of an affair, rape or sperm donation, and provides some information about secret groups on Facebook where those affected can gather and speak to others in their position.

You and I may not agree on the best way forward in these sensitive situations.  There is, indeed, no agreed ‘Code of Practice’ for how to proceed from this point forwards.  Since 2015 a set of Genetic Genealogy Standards have been in place, but these are intended to provide ethical and usage standards for the genealogical community to follow when purchasing, recommending, sharing, or writing about the results of DNA testing for ancestry.  They don’t specifically relate to how, or whether, to tell Aunt Maggie her late husband fathered a child ten years into their marriage.

Clearly, then, the implications of DNA testing are wide.  Whether we test only ourselves or a handful of other consenting family members too, the fact remains that the results – in terms of what is revealed through the people we match with – will reveal information not only about ourselves but could impact on other close family members who have not tested – who possibly would not have consented to a test even if we had asked them.  Nevertheless, the genie is now out of the bottle: as of 2018, more than 26 million worldwide had taken such a test and it is estimated that by the end of next year the figure may be approaching 100 million.

Our responsibility is to recognise all of the above, and to proceed with integrity and discretion.  It’s likely that we will all have different approaches to these ethical issues.  Yours may not be the same as mine, and in any case it makes sense to adjust our approach depending on the people involved.  But with all this in mind, I’ve put together this checkpoint of ethical considerations:

  • We must respect privacy and confidentiality.
  • We must recognise that not everyone will respond to stories with the same outlook as our own, and we must be sensitive to the specific needs and feelings of each.
  • Before asking another family member to test for us, we must ensure they are fully aware of the possibility of unexpected results.  (I’ll explain in my next post why it can be useful to ask family members to test.)  At the time of asking them to do so we should clarify if they would want to be informed of any unexpected results, and undertake to respect their wishes.
  • Even if the key players in this scenario are now deceased, their actions may have an impact on others who are still living.  Their needs must be taken into consideration too.
  • If we decide to tell others of unexpected findings – such as the discovery of a child or half-sibling, we must be discrete, operate on a need-to-know basis, and leave it to the person or people involved to decide if this new information is to be shared more widely.
  • We should let sleeping dogs lie: If I see evidence of misattributed parentage in another person’s tree (and there is definitely one who matches a person whose DNA I manage) I would never tell that person unless they got in touch to investigate the connection.

If you have never considered DNA testing to help with your family research, I hope this post and the previous two have helped you to think through the issues and decide if you want to do so.  The final two posts in this ‘whirlwind introduction’ to DNA testing will look at the benefits of asking other family members to test, and finally at which companies provide DNA testing for genealogy.

*****

Edited August 2020
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links

1 thought on “DNA testing: Ethical considerations

  1. Pingback: DNA: Asking other family members to test | English Ancestors

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