27 September 2016

Respect and Rights

I am a genealogist. I have a strong compulsion to know my ancestors. I have given up most other activities to follow this compulsion for years now, giving up even more after becoming obsessed with genetic genealogy. So, I can empathize with someone whose brick wall is with their parents or grandparents, whereas my brick walls are deeper in my family tree.

I also recognize that I am my own person; a product of my upraising and my experiences in life. My genes were passed down by my ancestors, but not their deeds. I am not doomed because of the bad things they did. My karma isn't influenced by the good things they did. I make my own destiny. I know who my father is, but he had little to do with the person I am, having divorced Mom when I was only two-years old. I grew up in a household with no father. I grew up in a house with no grandfather; my grandmother was also divorced. I never felt that I missed anything due to the lack of men in my childhood even though this was a rare circumstance in the 1950s and 1960s. My character was strongly influenced by my mother and my other matrilineal line ancestors in the photo below. They passed on the idea that I should consider the feelings of others as well as right and wrong when making decisions.

Too often today, in all areas of our lives, some have the idea that their way of looking at things is the only valid way and the way of the "truth." But there are no hard and fast rules. Ideas of right and wrong change over time, in different cultures, and with new experiences. My pre-teen and teen years encompassed enough of the 1960s for me to remember the teachings of tolerance and idealism. I may not respect all of the beliefs of others that are different from my own, but I respect their right to have those beliefs. What I can never respect is one person's right to force their beliefs on others.

I recently read Bill Griffeth's The Stranger in My Genes. He says, "If genealogy had taught me anything, it was that when our lives are stripped to the bare walls—no job, no money, no possessions—we are left with a fundamental truth that defines us, and it's family."1 After taking a DNA test for family history purposes, Griffeth discovered that the father who raised him was not his biological father. The story of his path to acceptance and understanding of this truth is a compelling one. Griffeth's brother stated what has always been a truth in my family, too: "No matter what, you're still my little brother."2

Family is so much more than a blood relationship or shared genes.

One thing that impresses me with Griffeth's story is his understanding that our ancestors are people just like us, with shortcomings and imperfections, as well as honor. As much as he wanted to know the story of his biological father, he did not press his mother when he saw she was reluctant to discuss what she saw as a mistake she had made. He had empathy for his mother's feelings.

This struck me as so different from the sentiments I often hear expressed today. While I have sympathy for any person who does not know their immediate ancestors and wants to know, I also empathize with the men who were told no one would ever know they were a sperm donor, the women who were told no one would ever know they gave their child up for adoption, or the women who had a moment of indiscretion or a great love affair that resulted in them giving birth to a child whose biological father is not the one named on the birth certificate. In an earlier time, the accepted cultural mores meant never being "outed."

Yes, things have changed today, but many of us continue to believe in the morals we were raised with (or that we may have tortured ourselves with for years as we explored new philosophies). For those on all sides of the unknown parentage triangle who look forward to contact, I am happy for them. For those who do not, I have trouble accepting that any person should be forced to confess or accept something they may have tried to forget or that may cause them pain.

Knowing your medical history is important. Modern DNA tests can provide a lot of information. All of the health history revealed by my DNA tests just confirmed what I already knew from analyzing the death certificates of family members. Without those death certificates I could learn that information from my DNA test.

Not everyone feels the need to force a meeting with biological parents. Griffeth's book describes his acceptance. Some in my own family do not know the identity of their fathers or learned the identity after becoming an adult. One family member who contributed DNA for my family study said, "I don't really care one way or the other whether I learn who my father was. I know who my family is."

Context and empathy are required when researching all types of records. Census, court records, and many others can reveal just as much as a DNA test can reveal about a family secret. Time may lessen the impact of learning of unexpected events in the lives of our ancestors. I am much more careful with twentieth-century court records that reveal children born to unmarried parents than I am of the eighteenth-century "bastardy bonds." I would never apply that terminology to events in recent decades, but it is an historical term that genealogists use without thought for events in the far past. Context. Empathy. Time.

We should be willing to accept that not everyone else believes as we do. In my opinion, forcing anyone to confront an issue he or she is not ready to handle is wrong. Consider the consequences of an action on others before forcing an issue. Good philosophies to follow include the golden rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you;" the silver rule, "do nothing to others you would not have done to you;" and the Navajo saying about "walking a mile in the other guy's moccasins."3 Respect.

My colleague Karen Stanbary, CG, who is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker cautions, "most adoption stories come from a place of profound pain or shame or both for the biological mother, and sometimes the father, too. We all have our own skill sets and defenses against pain and shame. Each person is unique in how much time and support one requires to be ready to take on the risk of additional pain or shame. One size never fits all."

1. Bill Griffeth, The Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir (Kindle edition; Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2016), location 1259.

2. Griffeth, The Stranger in My Genes, loc. 421.

3. Bill Puka, "The Golden Rule," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu/goldrule/).

To cite this blog post:
Debbie Parker Wayne, "Respect and Rights," Deb's Delvings, 27 September 2016 (http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/ : accessed [date]).

© 2016, Debbie Parker Wayne, Certified Genealogist®, All Rights Reserved


  1. Have you run into anyone that you have done research for, at their request, but did not believe your findings because they believe "it can't be true" or disagree? How did you handle the situation?

    1. Anonymous, whether something comes up through documentary or genetic information, I present my findings, my analytical interpretation of the information, and my logical reasoning for the conclusion it leads me to. Clients are free to disagree, but they know how and why I reached my conclusion. So far, my conclusions have been upheld after a client did more investigation themselves. When talking to a potential client I discuss the possible findings so the end result will not be a complete surprise. If a potential client and I do not seem to be on the same wave length I prefer not to accept the project. I hope this answer helps.

  2. Debbie,

    Thanks for your excellent article. DNA testing has tremendous value for the genealogist, but it must be used in the proper context. You are absolutely correct, the recipient of the information may not want to know the results of genetic analysis. As genetic genealogists we must be vigilant to guard the rights of others.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Haine. My colleague, Blaine T. Bettinger, helped me understand that DNA exceptionalism is a flawed concept. For me, it just follows that the same courtesy and vigilance applied to all research we do applies to DNA findings.

  3. I agree, Thanks. I came upon a very graphic messy Civil War record that named names etc - re a child born outside of marriage. About that time I had contact with a descendant of child of that out of marriage relationship and chose not to share the info. If she sends for record she will learn of it - but I couldn't tell here.

    1. This is one of those situations we all have to determine how to handle in a way that allows us to sleep at night. If the information impacts the objective of the research task it is difficult to ignore it. Most often it is events that happened in the more recent generations that cause more concern, but for some people even events far in the past may be distressing. That is one reason I try to convince people that whatever the ancestors did or did not do is no reflection on us today.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. I removed the name from this post by "Unknown" since the events are recent.

    Thank you for this input. In 1919, my grandmother's 1st cousin had a child out of wedlock with a Roman Catholic girl. His mother, who disliked Roman Catholics, seemed to have put her anti-Roman feelings aside and wanted to adopt the child - it never happened. The pregnant girl was sent to Buffalo, NY to a Roman Catholic unwed mothers home. My grandfather, thru political pull, was able to obtain a copy of the birth certificate. I have the certificate. When I moved to my ancestral neighborhood, I found relations of the unwed mother when I started going to Mass. The family had gone on beyond the event and I would greet them with a smile each week but never let on I knew a family secret. I don't even know that I would recognize descendants of the union in a DNA match since they may have been adopted and have a name other than their birth name. The MCRA would be my mother's maternal grandparents. Thanks, again. [Name removed]

    1. Thanks for sharing your situation. I am sure there are many more situations similar to yours than we will ever know about. With the DNA tests we have today, with a little analysis work, those who are concerned have an easy way to determine if they are actually related even if the family story gives no such indication.

  6. I am transcribing my 3x great grandfather's diary, dating from 1850-1900. A Scots emigre who used his intellegence and limited education to become a County Clerk, Superintendant of the Poor, Justice of the Peace and other public offices. His diary contains plant and weather info, community happenings as well as his work. Up until recently, I have had no problem transcribing and publishing the diary on my blog. However, his work with the Poor Farm gives me abit of a creepy crawly feeling. He names who goes to the Poor Farm, and also in the future, he will name a group of folks he takes from the Poor Farm to the Insane Asylum.

    As I said, I have a creepy crawly feeling, but I also believe that this diary is an important historical entity that should be shared.

    That said, do you have any comments on this?

    1. Joan,

      I generally look to official rules of agencies for guidance when I feel unsure about what to do. Census records as late as 1940 are available in the U.S. In my state of Texas, death records are held private for 25 years and birth records for 75 years. Even HIPAA allows medical information to be shared after 100 years. So your 1900 items would not be withheld by any of the agencies I just listed.

      If the information is easily accessible elsewhere or does not affect living people or parents of living people I am not normally reticent to publish. In your example, assuming this is in the U.S., anyone who looks at the census records and a local history book would likely be able to determine these people were in the Poor Farm. One of my ancestors is listed in the 1880 and 1900 census records of what was then called the Texas Lunatic Asylum. If those records were not available she would have just disappeared from history and I would never know what happened to her.

      If we keep the perspective that an ancestors deeds are not a direct reflection on the descendants, it may lessen the creepy crawly feelings we sometimes have. While there might be a small number of descendants who would rather hide the fact their ancestor was in a Poor Farm or Asylum, I suspect the vast number of us are mature enough to accept these facts. They are facts we cannot change.

      To me, diaries and private papers are especially important to transcribe and publish as they likely contain information that is not available in any other record. That said, I might transcribe my mother's diary but delay publication of part or all of it if I knew one of my siblings would be hurt by something in the diary.

      So again, there is no one answer that works in all situations. If you come across something that especially bothers you maybe you can discuss it privately with a person or group whose ethics you trust unquestioningly.

      I hope this helps. This is my opinion, and others might differ.

  7. I totally understand your comments and agree that one has to use a great deal of discretion and compassion in unravelling the details of the past. However with respect to adoption I think that if the "child" has a very strong need to know about their biological origins for any one or more of a number of reasons, then that right has to be seriously considered. Personally, I think that the understandable regret of the biological parents for an event that had lasting consequences and the creation of another life should not be the determining factor in preventing that new person from discovering their roots, medical history or identity. Thank goodness for DNA. It has been a great gift to many adoptees.

    1. Elizabeth,

      I completely agree that everyone has the right to everything they can learn from a DNA test and from whatever records are legally available. There are many records that are denied to me even though I have a strong desire to access them. Because I have compassion for everyone involved, I do not think the desires of one party supersede the desires of any other parties. The concerns of all deserve equal consideration, in my opinion. In life there are situations where we all are denied something we want, even if we feel we have a "strong need to know." It does not apply just to adoptees but to all situations involving more than one person in any way.

      To be fair and equitable to all is my goal.

  8. Great article with some sound reasoning. For the people I work/worked with every one has been unique. First and fore most the person must know that the results may not be what they want to hear. Second they need to feel ready, in their own time frame as how to proceed. There are definitely ways to protect each person's privacy and individual concerns. So far each one has been very rewarding in just providing answers to long term questions.

    1. Well said, Susan. In our research we can never guarantee what we will find whether we use DNA or documents, whether we are looking for a parental couple one generation back or ten generations back in our tree. Being mindful of the the potential effects on all concerned parties is most important.

  9. Having respect for someone's privacy is exactly the reason why there is a movement to restore equal access to original birth certificates to adult adoptees. There is privacy in giving an adoptee their first medical record .. the document which links they to their genetic heritage. There is no privacy when dna is used and the family tree is used to locate the biological parents.

    While certain medical conditions are revealed in dna tests, many more can not be. The US surgeon general declared Thanksgiving to be the time families should talk about medical conditions which run in the family. As physicians well know, there are over 6000 illnesses which run in families for which there are no dna tests. Epilepsy, hypertension, diabetes, aneurysms, glaucoma, and over 5,900 more medical conditions are not revealed in dna tests.

    And yes, society changes. There was a time women couldn't vote or own their own property. Prior to 1970s federal laws, women could be fired for being pregnant and had no right to have a credit card or rent property or buy property without a male cosigner. Those were some of the reasons many women placed infants for adoption... They couldn't support themselves.

    Since federal laws were implemented, parents who considered placing infants for adoption were given nor decisions in the adoption process... Open adoptions are now the norm. Whether exchanging letters thru the agency or face to face visits, adoptees in the last 20 years have much more information than those adopted in the "baby scoop era."

    The parents from that time are encouraged to seek counseling in order to heal their wounds.

    Studies in states which have restored accesss show that most birth parents (99%) do want to be contacted by their adult children.

    The few that refuse contact have that decision respected. That is the right of any adult... To choose who they are in contact with. It is also the right of other family members to choose to be in touch with the person who was adopted out of the family.

    What search angels see time and time again is when a family member discovers a close dna relationship with an adoptee, THEY are often the one wanting to find where the adoptee fits in.

    Continuing to bind adoptees to agreements in which they had no voice and no choice continues to treat them as infants, or as chattel. Adoptees are humans, they have rights, they didn't choose their dna, it was given to them by their parents.

    Privacy? Absolutely! Anonymity? That is not possible... There is no way to put the dna genie back in the anonymity bottle.

    Everyone is entitled to their truth. And everyone is entitled to privacy. Restoring access to original birth certificates accomplishes both.


    1. Connie,

      Regarding privacy and contact:

      > The few that refuse contact have that
      > decision respected. That is the right
      > of any adult... To choose who they are in
      > contact with. It is also the right of
      > other family members to choose to be in
      > touch with the person who was adopted out
      > of the family.

      I agree that choice regarding contact is important. The organizations where an adoptee or the biological parents can opt-in to contact seem to be a good idea. I have wondered why they are not used more if so many biological parents want to be contacted by their adult children. I am not sure if it a matter of people not knowing or some bureaucracy or something else.

      Working to change the laws to allow access to original birth certificates for adult adoptees seems to me to be a good thing. Biological parents may have been promised anonymity when a child was conceived or born; changes in the law that allow a time period where a person can opt-out until they are ready to be known allows one to move at their own pace. Laws could be written to provide family health information to the adoptee even without contact with parents.

      The move to open adoptions solves a lot of problems. If one is never promised secrecy, one cannot expect it. Some other countries handle this much better than we do in the U.S.

      Regarding medical information:

      There are no perfect solutions for all situations. No matter what the law allows there will always be times when some of us cannot get the information we want about family health histories. A mother who gave a child for adoption may not know anything about the father's health history. One or both of the parents may be deceased. Even those of us who are not adoptees have parents and grandparents who died before telling us about health issues. DNA tests give us more information than we had twenty years ago and will probably get better in the coming years. I put my faith in science for this even if it takes some years.

      Rewriting the laws to provide as much information as possible to adoptees while allowing contact with the consent of all parties fits with my sense of right and wrong.

      As I mentioned in the post, I fully realize not everyone sees this the same way I do. An open and respectful conversation like this may benefit all.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Debbie,

    I have had a similar adoption experience. My birth father was never involved in my life. My formative years were also the 60s. I never felt out of the ordinary or traumatized because of this. My mother married my stepfather when I was ten and I grew to accept him as my father. Until then I was raised by my mom and loving grandparents. It seemed quite normal.

    I have had mild curiosity though about my birth father, but have not really acted on it. I have known his name since I was in high school though a family member. I never asked my mother about him as I figured she would tell whatever I needed to know. I have built out some of his family tree, but not published the results. When I graduated college I moved 150 miles from my childhood home and found out later that my birth father and his family lived just five miles away from where I had moved. He has since moved out the area.

    DNA has certainly changed matters. Through Ancestry.com I have found one ancestor 3-4 generations away from my birth father. He reached out to me did not know anyone very close to my father's line. I know my birth father had a son and daughter. So, they may find me directly or indirectly through my DNA eventually. Should that happen, I really have no idea what my reaction would be. I think I would agree to meet if they wanted to.

    Did I do DNA testing with a subconscious desire to find them? Did I post here for the same reason?

    I have no idea what my birth father did or did not tell his family of my existence. Why should needlessly interrupt their lives with something they have no desire to know and may find deeply hurtful.

    I do seem to be in the minority of people I have talked to in the genealogy community with my seemingly disinterested view of these blood relatives. But that's just me.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Marty. By thinking of this now maybe you will be more prepared for the time when a close relative shows up in your DNA match list.

      I think there are as many or almost as many in the genealogy community who are less concerned with blood relatives than with what we consider to be "family." Maybe we need to discuss this more in the open so we are not drowned out. My family includes so many half-relationships, step-relationships, and adoptive-relationships that we have never been limited by blood. To me genealogical research IS family history, not the search for blood relatives as some define genealogy. Blaine talks about our genealogical tree and our genetic tree with the genetic tree being a subset of the genealogical tree. I also mention family trees because mine includes MORE than those who would only be in my genealogical or genetic tree.

  11. Great article! And, I read "The Stranger in My Genes" and also appreciated both how his brother said they'd always be brothers and how he stopped pushing his mother for more information.

    I have only recently heard the term "DNA exceptionalism." You said it is a flawed concept. Can you explain the term and why you think the concept is flawed? Thanks!

  12. Dana.

    "DNA Exceptionalism" is "the belief that genetic information is special and should be treated differently from other types of information." (For more, see Blaine T. Bettingeer, "DNA Standards and Certification – A Response to an NGS Quarterly Editorial," The Genetic Genealogist, 26 January 2014 (http://thegeneticgenealogist.com/2014/01/26/dna-standards-and-certification-a-response-to-an-ngs-quarterly-editorial/). We can learn about adoptions, illegitimacies, and other relationships that some people find embarrassing or distressful, as well as family health history information, from ANY of the traditional records we use for genealogy (diaries, newspapers, census, wills, probate, vital records, etc.). Because we can also learn of those events from DNA is no reason to prohibit or limit DNA testing. Does that make sense? (My apology for the delay in replying. I was traveling.)