In the last few years there has been an explosion of DNA testing for genealogical purposes and if you are a family history researcher like me, then you will have either already taken a DNA test yourself or at least considered the possibility of taking one. But are you fully aware of the potential risks associated by what you potentially uncover, because once you’ve opened Pandora’s box there is no going back!
The price of these kits has dropped dramatically in recent years, which has made these test kits much more affordable, but have you stopped and thought about what the potential impact of taking a DNA could have within your own family? With well over 20 million test kits sold, Ancestry leads the way with numbers and once again in the lead up to Christmas a DNA test will be a popular gift for many, but do you risk tearing your own family apart by what you discover and should these kits come with a warning?
In line with the explosion of DNA kit sales, there has also been a rapid increase in DNA based TV programmes, both in this country and around the world and the emotional impact of these programmes is immense. You can’t help but be moved by the emotions of families being reunited after decades apart, thanks to the powers of DNA. The programmes are designed to pull on your heart strings because that makes for great TV. Of course, what doesn’t make for great TV is the heartbreak and devastation that these potential DNA discoveries cause. So, is there a darker side to DNA testing that we should be more cautious of? I would imagine that for every incredible family journey that there is also a devastating story of despair and heartbreak, but that doesn’t make for a good TV programme does it.
Ethics within the genealogy community really is an important and big issue and something that I have spoken out about many times, but is there a moral responsibility on DNA testing companies to issue a more prominent warning to potential customers of the potential impact and consequence of taking a DNA test or should that burden of responsibility rest solely on the consumer, you and me?
The biggest concern raised in recent years has been the privacy issues surrounding certain websites and whether your data has been compromised and quite rightly so, this is an important issue and should be highlighted and addressed. But raising concerns about the darker side of DNA testing and the risks associated with taking a DNA test appears to be a lone voice and maybe something that the DNA testing companies would rather see go away.
Don’t get me wrong there are huge potential benefits to taking a DNA test that can help you with your family history research and a DNA test has the potential to solve many genealogical puzzles on your family tree, when used alongside conventional and traditional family history research. However, does the negative potential outweigh the positives? We are always encouraged as researchers to use all the tools that are at our disposal and when used responsibly, a DNA test is just another tool in your genealogical armoury to help you with your research, so why wouldn’t you want to make use of it?
All families have secrets, and it’s almost inevitable that when we undertake genealogical research, that family secrets can emerge. These discoveries could equally of course be revealed by what we discover from our traditional paper research. Discovering family secrets might appear to be exciting, but they can also be confusing, distressing and extremely upsetting for those involved. Once the genie is out of the bottle, sadly you can’t put it back and these secrets can be life changing. So, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and let’s say you take a DNA test and you are faced with a life-changing discovery, what do you do next?
The weight of responsibility of the person who knows the family secret can be overpowering and consuming and can eventually lead to family rifts. The decision whether to tell family members about the secret is an impossible position to be put in. It can destroy a family and tear up relationships, but equally, if you keep the secret for a long time and eventually the truth comes out and the family discover that you knew the secret all along, it could destroy your own family relationships forever. Therefore, the burden on the shoulders of the secret holder is huge. There is no easy answer to this problem, but it is something that we should all be aware of before undertaking any research and certainly before we consider taking a DNA test.
So can or could the DNA companies do more in this area, the simple answer is a resounding yes! Ancestry do give you a warning at the activation stage of your test, but by that time you have already made a financial investment and purchased your DNA test kit, is it too late then? With DNA test kit sales running into tens of millions, this is a potentially lucrative market for testing companies so why would they jeopardise their financial gain by issuing you with a warning.
I should also add at this point that I have taken both an Autosomal test with Ancestry and a Y-DNA test with Family Tree DNA and I have experienced both sides of the coin. I have benefited from knocking down a long-standing brick wall that I could have only solved by taking a DNA test, but the flip side is, I also have made a life-changing discovery within my own family.
Did I go into taking a DNA test armed with all the facts yes, but was I blinkered, a resounding yes! My viewpoint was that “these life-changing and heart-breaking discoveries only ever happen to someone else”
My warning to you is; just be careful that when you take your DNA test that you are not “that someone else”.
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