South King County Genealogy Society Blog

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South King County Genealogy Society Blog

Ethical Genealogy

Posted: 25 May 2020 10:00 AM PDT

Have you heard of the new book by journalist Libby Copeland: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are. American Ancestors and the Boston Public Library had an interview and Q & A with her this week, full of stories and insight.

I was struck by the advice from one of the "search angels" in her book, who says that she no longer tries to persuade people to DNA test. After hearing Judy Russell's webinar DNA Rights and Wrongs: The Ethical Side of Testing, I think I would have to agree. To our cousins or others we would like to test, we owe a complete description of what testing entails, and we need to offer them fine-grained choices such as: 
  • whether their profile will have their name or an anonymised nickname,
  • what email will be associated with a kit,
  • whether or not they will allow sharing of the test results, and to whom,
  • whether or not they want to access the test results,
  • if there are unexpected results, do they want to know those results? and so much more.

On her blog Forming Consent, Judy Russell offers some help to us as we discuss and assess these choices. First, the Board for Certification of Genealogists offer the Genealogists' Code of Ethics In my opinion, every genealogist should read and consider carefully this code, whether or not you plan to certify with BCG. You can download a copy of the code at the bottom of the page.

To get specific about DNA testing, there is the Genetic Genealogy Standards, drawn up by many leaders in the field, such as CeCe Moore, Blaine Bettinger, Angie Bush, Ann Turner and Debbie Parker Wayne, to name a few with whom I am familiar. Again, the standard is available to download from the site.

Blaine T. Bettinger has provided freely a checklist you can provide to your prospective test-taker to clarify their preferences. I personally would add a question about allowing (or not) access to kit results by law enforcement. Judy Russell's blog post also links to Beneficiary Designation Form by Bettinger, a Consent Form for a Project by Debbie Parker Wayne and a  Consent Form for a Family Member also by Wayne. Depending on your research plan, any or all of these could be useful to you.

You might want to read more about informed consent at Before we buy that kit…

By the way, I've not yet read The Lost Family. I have asked the King County Library system to buy a copy.

Valorie Zimmerman