Ancestry should not be subject to privacy restraints

Credit: Robert Payne

In my earlier post on Prince William’s mtDNA lineage, and its possible Indian provenance, I didn’t address the issue of genetic privacy in much detail. The discussion is relevant in this case because BritainsDNA inferred his lineage by looking at distant relatives. Assuming that the biological pedigree we have for William is correct, he must share the mtDNA of his relatives who descend in an unbroken line from a common female ancestor.

A concern about the breach of privacy emerged almost immediately. Though I have serious reservations about the sensationalism which BritainsDNA has engaged in, I think it is totally legitimate of them to infer William’s ancestry in the fashion they did. First, Prince William is a public person, and in direct line to the throne of the United Kingdom. Though some of the spin may be distasteful, remember that this is a person who is where he is because of his ancestry. Second, anyone who performs genealogical research is exposing the information of family members, often without their consent. If William’s mtDNA haplogroup was known to be pathogenic than the case for withholding the information from the public seems straightforward. As it is all that was uncovered was relatively banal, that William may have a South Asian ancestress. There’s a lot of information about me that I’d rather not others know first, but that’s not how the world works. In the grand scheme of things this just isn’t a big deal, and we should focus on the more concrete problem of public understanding of science, and long term issues in regards to genetic privacy more generally.

Addendum: I am aware of concerns in regards to paternity. On the whole I generally think in most situations this is probably information that is going to come out in any case, and so it wouldn’t hurt for it to emerge earlier. Additionally, in the cases of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson’s presumed line of descent there were widely diverging views among the white descendants as to whether they should cooperate because of the possible moral implications. I suspect most would agree it is better to know this information, even though it implied that line of putative black Jefferson descendants may have paternity misassignment in their lineage. Finally, obviously these issues are far diminished in the case of mtDNA, since maternity is guaranteed. Though one never knows if someone who was adopted was never told of his reality.

Source: Discover Magazine – Gene Expression