DNA testing is not the way to reunite families

We, who are geneticists, genetic counselors, and ethicists from Baltimore, read with interest the piece by James Burdick in The Sun (“DNA testing could help reunite families separated at U.S. border,” June 28). While we could not agree more with the sentiment that family separation is an abomination and scar on our national conscience or with the need to reunite these families as quickly as possible, there is no need for — and many strong arguments against — using DNA to do this.

First, the parents know their children and vice versa. Except in the case of young infants, who change quickly over time, there is no need to routinely check kinship. Second, neither the parents, who are incarcerated, nor the children, who are too young, can give consent for this testing. The federal government has lost its position as an honest broker for sequencing or retaining DNA samples. The companies (23andMe and MyHeritage) would need to agree to share data that is comparable. They would also need to agree to destroy the samples and data as soon as possible following reunification (without adding them to their databases).

Furthermore, DNA testing could reveal unexpected family relationships (such as adoption, non-paternity, consanguinity) that are irrelevant to the goal of reunification. If any DNA testing is required (for example for young infants), it should be restricted to the minimum number of markers necessary to inform the relationship with the parent. The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) issued a statement on June 29 stating that "it does not support the use of such [DNA] testing ... and strongly encourages the exploration of other methods for the purpose of family reunification."

Bringing these families together physically would allow them to recognize and find each other while limiting the suffering and damage of ongoing separation. Expending the necessary travel funds to facilitate this is far preferable to the ethically unsupportable plan of performing DNA testing on forcibly separated families who are unable to be properly consented. While we believe that DNA testing, when used responsibly, offers many benefits for health care (diagnosis, individualized treatment, prognosis, recurrence risks, etc.) and society, (ancestry, population history, etc), genetic testing in the absence of proper informed consent and under the extreme duress of family separation has the potential to further exploit this already vulnerable group of people.

Ada Hamosh, MD, FACMG

Carolyn D. Applegate, MGC, CGC

Natalie Beck, MGC, CGC

Hans Bjornsson, MD, PhD

Jacqueline Britton, MGC, CGC

Antonie Kline, MD

Gretchen MacCarrick, MS, CGC

Debra Mathews, PhD, MA

Weiyi Mu, ScM, CGC

Christy Haakonsen Smith, ScM, CGC

Krista Sondergaard, MGC, CGC

Kelsey Stauff, MGC, CGC

David Valle, MD

Hilary Vernon, MD, PhD

Miriam Blitzer, PhD, FACMG

Shannan Dixon, MS, CGC

Carol Greene, MD

Toni Pollin, PhD, CGC

Alan Shuldiner, MD

Erin Strovel, PhD

The writers are members of the Baltimore Washington Genetics Group.

Send letters to the editor to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
77°