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TV Review: DNA Testing Secrets

23 September 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1016

Channel 4 News have recently produced two short films on genetic testing. While BioNews readers may appreciate the potential breadth of this topic, the focus of these two shorts is narrow: relationships between family, especially when the wedge of genetic relatedness is driven between them.

So, how does it impact the family unit, and its integrity? Channel 4 enlightens us with four case studies in two short films. None are particularly happy tales.

The first episode focuses on immigration and covers the cases of two different men who have resettled in the UK without their families. Upon being resettled from Kenya, the first applies for family reunification to bring his wife and young son to join him. 

Here I am illuminated, and not in a pleasant way – the bioethically minded reader should pay attention. In a harrowing invasion of privacy, the Home Office calls for the family to undergo DNA testing to confirm his son is indeed his. I will not expand further, though the outcome may be obvious. The fact that this is apparently becoming a typical procedure for one to immigrate to this country leaves me miserable. If genetic relatedness is mandatory for an individual to constitute part of a family unit, where does this leave families who may have adopted? What is the procedure for re-testing if a negative result is returned?

Indeed, this raises many questions. I recommend spending a modest eight minutes of your time on it. The second case presented is similar, exploring the barrier that this supposedly 'optional' genetic testing represents to a family escaping persecution in Pakistan.

Episode two was, to me, considerably less enlightening. It covers something closer to home for many: 23andMe and the murky world of genetic genealogy. I must confess I still cannot quite understand why the practice is so appealing, particularly to those above a certain age. Apologies to any readers eagerly constructing extensive family trees so they can finally exchange pleasantries with that long lost third cousin via Facebook (including my own grandfather). This short may be for you.

We are introduced, again, to two individuals with two cases. One discovers through genetic genealogy that her father is not her father, and another discovers that his heritage is not as he believed (and therefore, presumably, his father is probably not his father). In both instances, tests were gifts from family members. Have we achieved a new age of genetic prying? What would previously be whispers behind closed doors are now confirmed with gifts of 23andMe kits. Which brings me to the episode's interlude: a plug from a genetic genealogist. They might have been brought in to clarify the underlying science, but instead come across as a passionate professional prier. Perhaps as some kind of scientist they might instead have used the time to highlight the fallibility of direct to consumer DNA testing and its interpretation (see BioNews 1007). But that wouldn't drum up business. 

In my opinion, little is to be gained from this episode. It feels like unnecessary airing of dirty laundry. 23andMe's service merely offers a fast-track to it. Families are complex, people are prone to infidelity, or some adopt and keep it a secret. This is nothing new and paternity testing has existed for a long time – now it's just widely available to the public. But these kits and their users have been around for over a decade. Catch up Channel 4. 

So, readers, two very different shorts: watch the first, but don't rush to the second, unless you currently have open on another tab.

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16 September 2019 - by Dr Maria Botcharova 
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2 September 2019 - by Georgia Everett 
The US administration wants to allow Customs and Border Protection to collect genetic material from undocumented immigrants in government custody, according to a leaked draft policy...
24 September 2018 - by Rachel Siden 
The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is urging companies that offer direct-to-consumer DNA testing to provide more comprehensive warnings to customers...
25 June 2018 - by Eleanor Taylor 
US President Donald Trump has now abandoned his policy of separating migrant families attempting to enter the US. However, for those families that have already been divided, the process for finding one another again is not clear. Two commercial genetic testing companies have offered to support efforts to reunite the 2300-plus children that have been separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border...
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