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One not for the record books

There are lots of games grandparents play with their grandchildren.

DNA.grparentThe card game Uno.

The board game Monopoly.

The word game Bananagrams.

But there’s one game grandparents shouldn’t play with their grandchildren.

It’s the “swab the grandkids for DNA” game.

At least not without the consent of the intermediate generation.

Because that could get the grandparents into serious hot water.

First and foremost, the issue comes down to a matter of the rights of the parents to control over their kids, their kids’ lives and their kids’ privacy — over and above any interests of the grandparents. Sure, Granddad may want to know whether Grandson is really Son’s kid… but he doesn’t have the right to make the decision to get Grandson tested.

The law has been clear about the scope of parental rights for a very long time in the United States. In Meyer v. Nebraska, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “liberty” included the right of parents to “establish a home and bring up children” and “to control the education of their own.”1 In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Court repeated that the “liberty of parents and guardians” included the right “to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”2 In Prince v. Massachusetts, it said again that “the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents…”3

The Court couldn’t have been clearer than it was in Parham v. J. R. in 1979:

Our jurisprudence historically has reflected Western civilization concepts of the family as a unit with broad parental authority over minor children. … The law’s concept of the family rests on a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life’s difficult decisions. More important, historically it has recognized that natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children.4

And it repeated all of these concepts in 2000 when, in a case called Troxel v. Granville, it had to decide between a parent’s right to decide who her kids would see and the grandparents’ desire to see more of the kids:

In an ideal world, parents might always seek to cultivate the bonds between grandparents and their grandchildren. Needless to say, however, our world is far from perfect, and in it the decision whether such an intergenerational relationship would be beneficial in any specific case is for the parent to make in the first instance.5

Stated simply, the parents have the right to decide if the kid gets the DNA test. Not the grandparents. The law is definitively going to side with the parents if this ever becomes an issue between the generations. So even if Granddad would love to know whether Grandson is really his grandson… hands off the kid’s DNA.

Beyond the legal constraints, there are all the ethical considerations involved in genetic testing of individuals who can’t themselves give valid consent — but whose entire lives may be affected by what the tests disclose. As one commentator wrote, “consider the scenario that you’ve just discovered that your 9 year old daughter has a risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer and your 6 year son is at risk of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Where do you go for advice? What can you do?”6

Hard enough to face that kind of information when the parents have carefully thought it through. Impossible to even contemplate if it comes up through a test that the parents didn’t even know was being done.

And finally there’s the issue of the lie the grandparent would have to tell the testing company in order for the testing company to accept the sample in the first place. Every single DNA testing company requires that the law be complied with in order for a child to be tested — and the law requires parental (not grandparental) consent up to whatever age the state sets for the child himself or herself to make the choice:

• AncestryDNA’s terms of service require that “(i)f you submit a DNA sample of a minor, you must represent that you are the minor’s parent, legal guardian and/or have explicit permission from the minor’s parent or legal guardian.”7

• 23andMe allows only a “parent or guardian” to “collect a saliva sample from, create an account for, and provide Self-Reported Information on behalf of his or her child.”8

• Family Tree DNA requires its customers to follow “local law” and reminds them to “practice ethical testing that reflects well on the genetic genealogy community.”9

• National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 Project states, flatly, “Any person purchasing a kit and supplying it to a child under the age of 18 must obtain consent from the child’s parent or guardian in accordance with applicable law prior to permitting the child to send in the sample for DNA analysis.”10

Adding up all these concerns, playing “swab the grandkids” is a really bad game to play.


  1. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399-401 (1923).
  2. Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534—535 (1925).
  3. Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944).
  4. Parham v. J. R., 442 U.S. 584, 602 (1979).
  5. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 70 (2000).
  6. Elaine Warburton, “Genetic Ethics – testing and storing our kids’ DNA,” Blisstree, posted 7 May 2008 ( : accessed 28 Sep 20134).
  7. US Terms and Conditions – Revision as of March 20, 2013,” DNA ( : accessed 28 Sep 2013).
  8. Privacy highlights page,” 23andMe ( : accessed 28 Sep 2013).
  9. May I test the DNA of a child? Is there a minimum testing age?,” Frequently Asked Questions, Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 28 Sep 2013).
  10. Are children under the age of 18 permitted to participate in the Genographic Project?,” FAQ: Participation, Testing, and Results, The Genographic Project 2.0 ( : accessed 28 Sep 2013).
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