DNA snatchers

Mickey was alarmed by the behavior documented in Stalking Strangers’ DNA to Fill in the Family Tree and sent me this commentary:

To do DNA tests on a patient, a doctor needs to get consent from a patient, and sometimes from an Institutional Review Board.  Outside of medicine, the atmosphere is somewhere between the Wild West and Transylvania:

They swab the cheeks of strangers and pluck hairs from corpses. They travel hundreds of miles to entice their suspects with an old photograph, or sometimes a free drink. Cooperation is preferred, but not necessarily required to achieve their ends.

Derrell Teat, 63, a wastewater coordinator, recently found herself staking out a McDonald’s. The man she believed was the last male descendant of her great-great-great grandfather’s brother had refused to give her his DNA. So she decided to get it another way.

“I was going to take his coffee cup out of the garbage can,” said Ms. Teat, who traveled to the Georgia mountains from Tampa, Fla., with her test kit. “I was willing to do whatever it took.”

The talismans come mostly from people trying to glean genealogical information on dead relatives. But they could also be purloined from the living, as the police do with suspects. The law views such DNA as “abandoned.”

“If you won’t give me your DNA but I run after your cigarette butt and I don’t contaminate it, can we get your DNA?” said Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, which nearly doubled its kit sales last year. “The answer is yes.”

We’ll see if that remains the case after people see what is going on.  If a doctor did that to a patient without consent they would be violating the patient’s rights.  What is next?  Stalking that cousin who doesn’t look like the rest of the family?

Rebekah Lloyd, 53, of Denver wrestles with her conscience as she plots to visit an 86-year-old aunt, who has dementia. “I feel a little like a DNA vampire,” Ms. Lloyd said. But her aunt’s cells, Ms. Lloyd believes, may hold crucial confirmation of her own American Indian ancestry.

Bob Grieve, 55, stores a DNA kit in his refrigerator to use upon his father’s death.

After testing his own DNA at the request of a distant cousin, Mr. Grieve was shaken to discover that he did not match any of his extended family, including his first cousin, the son of his father’s brother.

That could only mean an occurrence of what genetic genealogists call a “nonpaternal event.” Either his father was not his father, or his grandfather was not his father’s father. But the elder Mr. Grieve has refused to surrender to the swab.

April 5, 2007

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