DNA Testing or Not?


Is DNA testing a good or a bad idea?

Recent advances in DNA testing have made the cost reasonable for everyday people. As a result, many people may have received such a gift for Christmas, or at least are considering the test on their own.

AncestryDNA and 23andMe are the two most widely used commercial products for DNA testing to research your ancestry. A simple saliva swab makes these tests simple and painless. But are there drawbacks to digging into your family heritage?

Paul Hsieh, writing for Forbes, says there are issues to consider. Sometimes background checks through DNA testing will reveal family information best left unknown. These tests can reveal marital infidelity, previously unknown parentage, secret affairs, and other unpleasant family secrets.

Furthermore, if you choose to post your genealogy information on public websites, you may compromise the privacy of others who have never even been tested.

Hsieh gives an example of a man we’ll call “George Doe” who gave 23and Mekits to his parents and himself. He and his sister learned they had an unknown half-brother who shared the same father but was given up for adoption at birth. The result of this new information was his parents divorced and the family isn’t talking to his father. “George” would have never done this if he knew what trouble it would cause.

As Doe told the staff at 23andMe: “I’m not sure all your customers realize that when they participate in your family finder program, they’re participating in what are essentially really advanced paternity tests.”

When Catherine St. Clair took her test from AncestryDNA, she learned that the man she knew all her life as her father was not actually her biological father. Similarly, her siblings were actually half-siblings. It rocked her world.  She said, “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.”

Both companies warn customers of such dangers in the fine print but most people never bother to read the warnings.

Another risk concerns privacy violations. Investigators have learned they can use DNA testing to find individuals they are investigating. Even though you may not personally be tested, if enough of your relatives are tested and they submit the results to a public genealogy data base such as GEDMatch, you may find your privacy violated.

This methodology was used to find the suspected Golden State Killer, James DeAngelo, who is charged with 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted kidnapping. Since DeAngelo was caught last April, 13 other suspected criminals have been identified in the same way.

There are benefits to DNA testing that go beyond your curiosity about your genealogy. Adoptees have been able to find biological parents and siblings, while others have found remote cousins that enrich their family experience. But the old saying certainly applies, “Let the buyer beware.”

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