At-home DNA testing kits are a growing trend, with the number of participants growing to more than 10 million worldwide. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe require a simple swab of the cheek in exchange for helping consumers “discover their genetic story” and uncover “what makes you you.”
As the sample pool grows, so does the accuracy of ancestry databases. Direct-to-consumer genomics services claim to offer customers a range of information from details about ancestry, to important health information, and even the identity of long-lost relatives.
These services claim that they provide customers with access to important information about themselves in exchange for a simple test that poses little risk. If that is the case, why not do it?
Here are five questions to ask yourself before swabbing your cheek.
1. What am I seeking?
If you are searching for a breakdown of your ethnic heritage or to be linked to relatives on the same search as you are, ancestry matching is a good bet. Consumers should be aware, however, that non-white customers will have a harder time finding matches because matching is based on the size of the sample, and the majority of ancestry DNA customers to date are white Americans of European descent.
You might be seeking health information, searching for clues as to whether you are at risk for any heritable diseases. Knowing in advance that you might live with a certain condition can help you prepare for its contingencies, and awareness that you carry genetic risk for a disease can motivate you to pursue a healthier lifestyle to prevent its manifestation. If you are at a heightened risk for something like alcoholism or breast cancer, you can be intentional about developing moderate drinking habits or diligently scheduling yearly mammograms as a result.
Of course, ruling out a genetic predisposition doesn’t eliminate the possibility of contracting these conditions. How much value does the concrete knowledge of the health risks written into our DNA really add? We can all benefit from making healthy lifestyle changes, and you can likely guess some of your health risks by assessing your family history. You might think the cost of the test isn’t worth the mere satisfaction of your curiosity. On the other hand, if you’re feeling very anxious about what is possibly in store, you might decide it’s worth the price tag to find out.
2. Is this the best source of the information I want?
Knowledge of whether you are a genetic carrier of certain conditions, like Huntington’s Disease for example, is incredibly powerful. It allows you to rest easy, or at least to be mindful of wisely using the time that you have. Of course, if something like that runs in your family, you can get a test from your doctor that is likely covered by your insurance without compromising your genetic privacy.
If you believe you are at risk for a heritable condition that serious, it is better to seek a test directly from your doctor. Not only is it more accurate, but a doctor can counsel you on specific risks and prognosis. Additionally, a doctor’s office is inherently more private due to doctor/patient confidentiality laws. DNA matching is built on making consumers’ information available to the public via ancestry databases — that is how matches are found.
3. How much privacy am I willing to surrender?
When someone is searching for relatives through ancestry databases, even a third cousin (of which you may have hundreds) can provide enough DNA information for you to be found — even if you haven’t participated in any DNA testing yourself. The more information about ourselves that we reveal, the less power we have over the many purposes for which that information might be used.
Criminal investigators are even using this information to find perpetrators through the DNA of their relatives. By volunteering our own DNA, we might be volunteering something we do not have the right to surrender — not just our own privacy, but the privacy of those to whom we are related as well. If you are consenting to DNA testing, proceed with caution. Choose the highest level of privacy available to maintain a greater degree of control over your own information.
4. Do I define myself through my DNA or through my choices?
Behind these marketing claims is the assumption that it is our biology that determines who we are, but what makes us who we are is not our chromosomes. Our actions, not our biology, define us. It might be interesting to note that your ancestors immigrated from Turkey, or shocking that your family tradition of making Swedish pancakes every Christmas has nothing to do with your heritage. In the end, though, these are not pivotal pieces of information.
Even if you are able to discover that you’ve descended from a famous and influential figure in history, that information is really only useful as a tidbit to be traipsed out at a cocktail party. When it comes to defining who you are, it’s your life and choices that matter, not George Washington’s.
5. Am I prepared for who I might find?
An additional benefit of Ancestry DNA is connecting with relatives who are still living. One of the anecdotes contributing to the popularity of these tests is of customers discovering relatives who they didn’t even know existed. DNA tests have the power to unveil biological relationships with strangers. This can be incredibly exciting, especially for those who are adopted and know little of their birth families.
This kind of information also carries the risk of stirring family feuds or revealing extramarital affairs. How you view this risk matters. If you embrace the mantra, “The truth will set you free,” uncovering the unknown could be a liberating experience for you. Others might choose a more conservative approach for the sake of preserving family unity.
Finally, there is always a chance of finding someone who does not wish to be found. When seeking contact with these biological relatives, you should prepare for the possibility that they might prefer not to engage. Being emotionally prepared to accept their wishes will help you to respect their freedom. Remember that, whatever their reasons, their desire to remain strangers isn’t personal.
DNA is the code that makes us uniquely ourselves. At the same time, this code tells us very little about who we are. No matter our biology, we have the capacity to define our lives with our values and actions.
And of course, none of this information changes the fact that we are all created in the image and likeness of God — this is the true source of our identity. As Pope Francis said, “So often in life, we waste time asking ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ You can keep asking, ‘Who am I?’ for the rest of your lives. But the real question is: ‘For whom am I?’”
Whether you are seeking these services for health reasons, to uncover lost ancestors, or find distant relatives, take time to consider all the angles. You can’t make a more personal decision, so make sure it is well-informed.