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October 9, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
While I have enjoyed learning more about my family tree since I had my DNA tested through 23andme a few weeks ago, I also find myself wondering about potential ethical problems with this kind of testing.
I see that the company I used, 23andme, has received a patent that would let parents at fertility clinics use the software to combine their genomes and determine which traits their child is most likely to inherit. It might work best with a couple who are looking for an egg donor or a sperm donor or both. Most ethically, it could be used to reduce the chance of a child inheriting a terrible disease; less ethically, it could be used to help parents pick their child's eye color and certain personality traits or even IQ.
While 23andme claims it has no plans to develop a "designer baby" program, I'm sure gene mapping will make it very possible in the future, by them or by some other genetics testing company. This 21st century eugenics is already being practiced by people who pick a certain sperm or egg donor based on looks and intelligence. Gene mapping will only make it easier for them to do it.
There are also some unintended consequences of this type of testing. Among the nearly 1,000 distant cousins 23andme matched me with as "DNA relatives" were two adoptees. Another woman, according to a forum post, found out that the father she grew up with isn't really her biological father when she persuaded him to send in a DNA sample to the company. When she confronted her mother, the woman admitted that her biological father is someone else and said, "I didn't think I'd ever be caught." In her forum posts, the woman sounds devastated.
I have also read a handful of blogs by enthusiastic users who decided to test their children's DNA through 23andme. One man had adopted a son from Vietnam and wanted to know more about his heritage; another tested her two sons. While this may provide valuable health information to the parents, it may also tell them some things they don't want to know and can do nothing about. Will it benefit a child to know that he carries a gene for Huntington's disease or early onset Alzheimer's and will have a vastly shortened life span? Is that a decision his parents have a right to make for him?
Privacy is also a concern and one I weighed carefully before I decided to participate. For me, it was worth any potential loss of privacy to try to find out more about my Finnish ancestry and the mystery of where my great-grandfather was from. I was also quite certain that I wasn't going to find any truly unpleasant information in either my health or ancestry results. Luckily, I was right, though there are a few things in the report I got back (and my subsequent in-depth exploration of the family tree) that will likely surprise some of my relatives. Not all of them may feel about the information the way that I do, either, so some of that information will remain in the family for now.
What do you make of 23andme? Would you have your own DNA tested? Would you have your children tested?
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