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DNA rights and wrongs

It’s never easy living in a time of change.

Even when we’re convinced, as The Legal Genealogist is convinced, that we’ll come out on the other side stronger and more secure for the experience, going through the minefield of change is just plain hard.

And so it is today for all of us who are living through this sea change in our understanding of what is and isn’t private information. Our reasonable expectation of privacy, in the language of the law1, has changed — or, more accurately, it’s been forced to change — almost overnight.

Just a few short years ago, society might well have believed, about that adoption or donor-conception or before-the-wedding birth, that nobody would ever know about it. Today, with DNA testing exploding far beyond the confines of a few forward-thinking genealogists, we’re coming to understand that it’s only a matter of time before that family secret of the past is going to be discovered.

You see it in the headlines almost every day:

• “How a DNA Testing Kit Revealed a Family Secret Hidden for 54 Years.”2

• “A DNA test may have revealed my birth parents, but it couldn’t help me find my family.3

• “‘Your father’s not your father’: when DNA tests reveal more than you bargained for.4

• “Ask Amy: DNA test reveals shocking results.”5

Few if any of these discoveries are without some emotional pain. One test-taker put it this way: “I looked into a mirror and started crying. I’ve taken for granted my whole life that what I was looking at in the mirror was part my mother and part my dad. And now that half of that person I was looking at in the mirror, I didn’t know who that was.”6 Another wrote:

At first, I was thinking this is the coolest genetics story, my own personal genetics story. I wasn’t particularly upset about it initially, until the rest of the family found out. Their reaction was different. Years of repressed memories and emotions uncorked and resulted in tumultuous times that have torn my nuclear family apart. My parents divorced. No one is talking to my dad. We’re not anywhere close to being healed yet and I don’t know how long it will take to put the pieces back together.7

No, it’s not easy to be living in a time of change.

So how do we make this easier, even if it isn’t and can’t be easy?

The best advice we can give anybody is… know before you test. Know the risks. Know what can be disclosed. Know what’s right and what’s wrong and what ethical guidelines are out there to help us make good decisions.

That’s the whole notion behind the webinar I gave on Wednesday for Legacy Family Tree Webinars: DNA Rights and Wrongs: The Ethical Side of Testing.8 It’s free online through January 9th and available to subscribers after that.

ethics webinar

The bottom line point of the webinar is that there are things we can do to make it easier to live through this time of change, by following the best practices and ethical guidelines of our field — the kinds of guidance we can get from:

• The Genetic Genealogy Standards;

• The Code of Ethics and Professional Practices of the Association of Professional Genealogists;

• The Genealogist’s Code of Ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists — and particularly the section “To protect people who provide DNA samples”;

• The Code of Conduct/Ethics of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies; and

• The Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others of the National Genealogical Society.

No, it’s never easy to be living in a time of change. We’re on the cutting edge in using this 21st century technology of DNA testing to shed light on people who came before us. And any time you’re on the cutting edge things are unsettling.

But the bottom line to me is this: I do believe, absolutely, that if we’re careful and thoughtful and ethical in handling this technology in our research, perhaps 20 years from now people are going to look back on this time period and ask, “What in the world were you worried about?” This same point was made by Dani Shapiro, whose book Inheritance about her own discovery that she wasn’t her father’s biological child is due to be released on January 15th. She said: “We find ourselves in an interesting sliver of time. Secrets surrounding identity have existed since the start of humanity. The Old Testament is threaded through with them. People lived and died without ever knowing the truth of themselves. But now–because of the potent combination of DNA testing and the Internet–those secrets are tumbling out. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the very idea that such secrets of identity were ever kept will seem ludicrous.”9

Let’s all work together, ethically, to sail through this sea change with as little pain as possible.

Cite this post: Judy G. Russell, “Ethics in a time of change,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2019 ( : accessed (date)).


  1. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967) (Harlan, J., concurring).
  2. Dani Shapiro, “How a DNA Testing Kit Revealed a Family Secret Hidden for 54 Years,”, posted 3 Jan 2019 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2019).
  3. Randall Howe, “A DNA test may have revealed my birth parents, but it couldn’t help me find my family,Arizona Central, online edition, posted 22 Dec 2018 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2019).
  4. Elle Hunt, “‘Your father’s not your father’: when DNA tests reveal more than you bargained for,The Guardian, online edition, posted 18 Sep 2018 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2019).
  5. Amy Dickinson, “Ask Amy: DNA test reveals shocking results,” Chicago Tribune, online edition, posted 15 Feb 2018 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2019).
  6. Sarah Zhang, “When a DNA Test Shatters Your Identity,” The Atlantic, posted 17 July 2018 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2019).
  7. George Doe, “With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce,”, posted 9 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2019).
  8. Truth in blogging: As a presenter for Legacy Family Tree Webinars, I am paid, and if you watch one of my webinars I do benefit.
  9. Shapiro, “How a DNA Testing Kit Revealed a Family Secret Hidden for 54 Years,”
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