April 28, 2016

Uncovering our ancestry can be a fascinating, exciting experience. Except when we uncover something less-than-favorable in the lives of our forebears and we are faced with accepting a part of our history we might prefer to sweep under the carpet. And what about those relatives who have deliberately chosen to step away from family connections? Having the unknown suddenly presented to them could be very uncomfortable, especially if they haven’t also made the choice to reconnect.

It presents a bit of an ethical challenge, balancing the way we use today’s modern tools and services to uncover ancestral information we feel is important, while respecting the choices others made that have impact on our lives, and practicing the candor it takes to embrace the full story – with all of its guts and glory.

The Unknown

Recently, a friend of mine purchased an ancestral DNA kit as a gift for his adopted adult son so that he could discover his ethnicity.  The results provided far more than ethnic background – potential relatives within the son’s birth family tree were also made available.  As it turns out, a birth relative had also requested his own ancestral DNA kit and they were linked as possible first cousins. As a result, and after much additional research, my friend’s son has found both of his birth parents.  Until now, he had been unable to locate his birth family through traditional methods.

The power of DNA technology, coupled with our public stories online through Facebook, and other now  easily-accessible information have done what the adoption agency did not – uncover unknown birth parents.

Contact is just beginning. However, the birth parents have been discovered with no voluntary participation on their part and that requires sensitivity. The adopted son is handling this delicately and respectfully, and hopefully there will be a joyful reunion.

The Known

Earlier this month I wrote about Russell Wilson and all that was uncovered about his ancestry.  Those discoveries, too, presented a dilemma: Wilson had not ever known his biological maternal grandfather, and a bit of research revealed him to be a renowned artist with work on display here in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Dr. Gates, the researcher who uncovered this, previously reached out to Wilson’s mother to ensure she was ok with this reveal.

It was exciting and interesting for Wilson to learn about his now-deceased biological grandfather; but would his grandfather and extended relatives feel the same about emerging in this new light? The circumstances around the disconnection are unknown and this is where the rub might be regarding ethics… is it fair to declare who someone is if they don’t want to be known?

As with all emerging knowledge – science, technology, and so on – our newfound ability to readily uncover our ancestry comes with a great responsibility to be respectful of everyone involved, and to be true to ourselves when uncovering the answers to our curiosities.