Beware DNA Searches for Relatives

Genealogy got a significant boost in 1976, thanks to Alex Haley, when the unexpectedly successful and extremely motivating novel, “Roots” hit the shelves of bookstores all across the United States. It opened a bottle where the genie refused to be imprisoned any longer and provided a rich, new path to discovery of our genetic family.

Time would bring new information about this imagined saga and Mr. Haley’s role in what some believe was one of the greatest literary hoaxes in American

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history. Whether he was guilty of more than a bit of knavery in his path to becoming a millionaire writer can be debated and you may research it further, if you wish. For now, let’s concentrate on the good that came from the publication of this work of fiction.

Many who knew little or nothing about their familial roots eagerly embraced the idea of digging into their own genetic backgrounds in search of, or to verify or deny, family tales. The tales would lead to unexpected and surprising leads to countries about which they knew nothing. Others would find their families had been slave owners or they were related to criminals or, for me, possibly a pirate queen.

How did this blog come to mind today? What little bit of something stung me enough to want to write about genealogy? Two things came together thanks to an investigative article in The New York Times, my morning read always.

First, there was the story about the New York City unclaimed bodies that had been “lent” to a local medical school for dissection without clearance from relatives. The medical examiner’s office, in fact, had failed, according to the Times writer, to even try to find a relative. At least one instance purported to have been a clear case of obstruction by office staff to mislead relatives regarding the remains of their loved one.

A chord was struck. What about my own relatives for whom I’ve searched for decades? Then the seed was given fresh ground and the story had to be written.

A few years ago, I decided to be one of the legions of people having their DNA analyzed by an on-line genealogy service. I recall it may have been, initially, associated with National Geographic, but somehow that morphed into a connection with several other services (of which I was initially unaware). I would, or so the marketing goes, be able to not only trace my ancestors, I’d actually be able to find living relatives. Wow, that was an intriguing prospect, so I sent in a request for the materials, paid the money and got a report back.

The matches came streaming in and, initially, I tried contacting some of the people who provided their email addresses. No luck. One woman had been married to a man who might have been a relative. How did she get into the database if it was HIS DNA and, in fact, from my understanding, my DNA would only be matches to female relatives?

Daily now they come in with notices that they’ve found yet another match for me. How could so many people be matches with me? All I can think is that my family had a mighty number of highly fecund members who spread their seed all over the world, unbeknownst to me. But, in the back of my mind, I suspected there might be those who had not the best of intentions when searching out relatives and that gave me a bit of discomfort.

One day a startling email hit my inbox. Reading the address, I found it was from blackfellafilms.com.au, a film company in Australia. The message was startling. Seems I had a relative who was very famous in Australia and they wanted to do an on-camera interview with me if I’d be in Europe or Australia anytime soon.

A famous relative in Australia? How could that be? Yes, a good many of the Irish had been sent to penal colonies in Australia but my DNA wouldn’t have been connected to my Irish relatives because mine was a maternal sample and my mom wasn’t of Irish extraction.

The docu makers were doing a film (working title DNA Nation) on Australian genealogy and I would be one of the star players, if I agreed. Intrigue is the only word I can use here. How did they come to get my DNA results when I thought it was to be kept confidentially and not shared commercially? The plot thickens.

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La Trobe University

Someone on Family Search had obtained my DNA results and, on their own and completely without my consent or knowledge, they passed it along to someone else and there the trail gets a bit confused. The results made their way to the film company via a professor (Dr John Mitchell) at an Australian university (La Trobe

University in Melbourne, Australia) who had analyzed them for the company.

He was asked to find relatives of famous persons in Australia. My results popped up and he, again without my consent or knowledge, forwarded it to the film company. How did this kind of research pass their research integrity committee and the requirements that persons in research have given consent? Does that sound kosher to you? It doesn’t and didn’t to me.

Fruitless emails to both the film company (which had undergone multiple personnel changes) as well as to the professor, his assistant and one of the chancellors of the university resulted in nada. The chancellor said they had done nothing wrong. The professor failed to respond at all. Nothing at all? I didn’t agree, but the chancellor, as the others, failed to respond to my protestation that I had not given permission.

All anyone would say was that the information had been passed on by an anonymous member of the Family Search board and they had nothing to do with it. How weak a response is that? Pretty damn weak in my estimation. So, if someone gives you stolen goods, you have no legal responsibility and are not guilty of any crime? I don’t think it works that way and I consider this stolen goods.

The university considered it case closed and, since I am in the United States and they in Australia, I guess they figured they were home free. Well, I suppose this blog is my only response to that “home free” attitude. I am passing this blog on to The New York Times writer who recently tweaked my wish for some closure on this matter. And I do not like that word “closure” either, I must say. This is academic dishonesty in my mind.

Universities and their tenured personnel are known to not only protect themselves but to hold themselves above the rights of anyone else. We’ve seen that in all too many cases and here is one of importance to me. I never thought I would be involved in this ethical dilemma, which the university refuses to acknowledge.

But I thought I’d pass this on to whoever wishes to read this blog and to any who are considering that seductive DNA relative search. Search at your own peril, my friends, because you have no idea where that DNA will end up. Look at the case of Henrietta Lacks. Of course, an extreme case, but a case in point. Oh, BTW, Oprah is making a film about that case.

It doesn’t bother me that The Church of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons) will baptize any of my dead relatives as members of their church, even if some of them were Jewish. But I do bristle at the arrogance of a university and a professor who have totally absconded from their ethical responsibility in matters of ANY research. Whether he received money as an outside consultant doesn’t matter. He stepped over the line and his professorial rank must have entered into the consideration by the film company and he got paid for it and the university backed him up on this.

What do you think?

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