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Monday, October 20, 2008

Adoptees use DNA to find surname

This is an example of a real ethical problem. You might be surprised to learn that there aren't all that many "real" ethical problems. Most of the ones that are proposed are pseudo-ethical problems.

In this case, an article from BBC News describe how Adoptees use DNA to find surname.
Male adoptees are using consumer DNA tests to predict the surnames carried by their biological fathers, the BBC has learned.

They are using the fact that men who share a surname sometimes have genetic likenesses too.

By searching DNA databases for other males with genetic markers matching their own, adoptees can check if these men also share a last name.

This can provide the likely surname of an adoptee's biological father.
Why is this an ethical problem? Because it (potentially) involves a conflict between the wishes of two individuals. The adoptee wants to know who his biological parents are and the biological parents may wish to remain unknown.

As far as I'm concerned, the wishes of the biological parents have to be respected but with the widespread use of commercial DNA testing services, this wish can be circumvented by a determined adoptee.

Incidentally, these tests are also going to reveal who isn't your father, and that's also a problem.

There are many blogs acting as cheerleaders for the new commercial DNA testing services. One of them, The Genetic Genealogist seems to think that finding out who your father is, or isn't, is a good thing. That blog even points to a commercial company runnnig a program for adoptees with a success rate of more than 30% [More On Revealing Surnames Using Genetic Genealogy].

I think it's about time we started to think about the consequences.


TheGeneticGenealogist said...

Actually, I do think it is a potential problem, and less than a month ago I wrote a whole piece on the blog about the future of identifying unknown parents using DNA. As a conclusion, I wrote about some of the ethical concerns:

"For most people, being able to identify your own ancestors based on your own DNA poses few if any ethical dilemmas. However, what if your neighbor or your stalker or even law enforcement wants to use a sample of your DNA to identify your ancestors? Additionally, what if your living ancestor doesn’t wish to be identified? Does the ancestor have that right, or is possible identification through genetic genealogy just one of the consequences of parenting a child anonymously or simply having sex with another person?"

Regardless of which side you or I support, my thought is that it will be nearly impossible to prevent an adopted individual from using genetic testing to learn about their biological parents. Currently, and even more so in the future, it will be impossible to prevent an adopted individual from sequencing their DNA (and as you'll see from my blog post, in the near future adopted individuals will be able to use both sex chromosomes and autosomal DNA to search for connections). Additionally, it will be nearly impossible to prevent the individual from comparing their DNA to others. These two abilities are all that is needed to identify unknown parents.

I think this type of discussion is important in that it helps trigger thought and debate. What are your thoughts (or, alternatively, the specific questions you would raise)? In this new age of cheap genetic sequencing and analysis (for better or worse), how would you ensure that an anonymous parent's wishes are respected?

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm missing something here but it would seem that the DNA of the unknown parent(s) would have to be in a data base accessible to the seeker in order for this to be feasible. It would appear that the answer is to make such data bases inaccessible to casual observers.

TheGeneticGenealogist said...

SLC - the biological parents don't have to be in the database. Identifications can be made after characterizing the Y-chromosome alone, for example, which can be done through comparison to EXTREMELY distant cousins (this method potentially identifies a surname, which might be enough of a clue to complete a search).

Anonymous said...

Re thegeneticgenealogist

1. But using the Y chromosome as a marker means that only males could use this technique.

2. As I understand it, the Y chromosome is passed down through the male line. It would seem that the more distance the relationship, the less likely that that a Y chromosome would be shared between the distant cousin and the subject of the search.

TheGeneticGenealogist said...

SLC - these are both good points, and very true, but I only used Y-DNA as an example. mtDNA can also be used, and in the future (as the price of sequencing drops and more people undergo whole-genome sequencing) autosomal DNA will also be an option.

Every method has its drawbacks, but the fact that adopted individuals have already been able to identify biological parents shows that they all have at least some probability of success.

Valhar2000 said...

What leaves me mystified about this is this obsession people have with identify their biological parents. What is the point? Do a lot of people want this, or is it just a Hollywood script-writer thing?

Anonymous said...

valhar2000: you are a moron

Lioness said...

I take it you've never read "The Ugly Duckling".