DNA Kits – Should They Come With a Warning?

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?

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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?

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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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6 thoughts on “DNA Kits – Should They Come With a Warning?

  1. What an excellent post! I have been researching my family tree for 20 years and have heard so many success stories about DNA testing and how they help knock down those brick walls. But I have always been hesitant about taking this step due to concerns about privacy, data ownership and controversial discoveries. Thank you so much for writing about this. More should be discussed about the downside of DNA testing.

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    1. Thank you Moira! Because the companies involves are making such huge profits from this, why would they publicise the negative side of testing! I just think that morally they have a duty of care to make people realise that there is the chance of making a life changing discovery. It’s a discussion that needs to take place

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  2. Thanks for this post. I agree completely! I’m not sure test-takers today are adequately prepared for what they might learn or what they might be giving up. I wrote about DNA tests some years ago. I called it “dynamite.” https://past-presence.com/2018/02/10/should-you-get-a-dna-test/. Today, I see Ancestry’s new mandate to be fully global. While I have reservations about DNA, still I hold out hope that one day there might be genetic help for the rest of us.

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    1. Thanks Linda and thank you for sharing your link as well. Your blog clearly highlights that there are so many benefits to taking a test, for all of us, but it’s clear that we both also highlight the potential consequences of not thinking fully about the consequences of what your results can reveal. We can all be a little bit guilty of thinking these things always happen to the other person, but as well know only too well, sometimes that other person is you!

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  3. I agree with the first comments. I had several family members do tests to help me with my research, but before they said yes, I had frank discussions to make sure they were aware of and accepted all possibilities for the outcome. We have had no surprises…yet! Another part of this is even more controversial…whose rights outweigh whose? Example, a woman in the 1970/80s gave up several children at birth (she did raise her last few children). Today, two of the adopted children used DNA. A daughter used it solely for identifying her biological parents, not genealogy. She located her biological mother through a DNA match to her half brother. The half brother found his match to their maternal Aunt who convinced the mother to accept the match, against her wishes. The daughter is now trying to force the mother into acknowledging her and any other children she gave up. Ironically the daughter self-admits she was adopted and raised in a loving family and has no health concerns. Her desire is (in my opinion) selfish entitlement. But I recognize the conundrum of whose rights trumps whose; The children’s right to be acknowledged by their biological parents or the rights of the woman whose story is unknown and may be facing her own demons? As much as I dislike government micro-management, the DNA question is a case of justifiable mandates to testing companies to present warnings before accepting payment. It won’t stop the scenario I described, but it would give fair warning to the unwitting finder of secrets, specifically those new to genealogy who are taken in by the commercials.

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    1. There are so many different scenarios and depending on where you sit in a particular family secret or reveal will certainly shape your opinion. No two cases are the same. Another area that I never touched on in my blog is the area surrounding sperm donors. How are there rights protected, I’m not sure. There are so many good things that can come out of DNA testing and I’m sure that medical advances in this area in the future might make testing even more critical. But as a general person taking a test because they are curious about their ethnicity, are they making an informed choice? Are the potential issues explained fully? I’m not so sure they are. It’s a very interesting discussion which I’m sure will continue over the next few years. Thanks for highlighting your example which is certainly something that I have no come across myself before

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