The Ethics of Genetic Genealogy: Tips from Judy Russell

Getting started with genetic genealogy is easy: Get a kit, send off your sample, and await the results. But those results can have huge surprises, not only for you, but also for your matches. Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, shares some things we need to consider around the ethics of genetic genealogy. 


You can watch our interview here:

Or if you'd rather just listen, you can listen to the podcast:

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 20

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 12 minutes.


You can find Judy at her website Make sure you check out her posts.

If you have taken a DNA test, I suggest watching my interview with Blaine Bettinger, who explained what to do when you first get your results back.  

The Ethics of Genetic Genealogy
Posted: February 7, 2019.

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  • Great video, Judy and Amy. I recently had a very similar scenario where I discovered through DNA that my living grandfather had a half sister that he never knew about. She was put up for adoption. My grandfather is now 87 and it’s hard to know if he would want to know this information.

    • That’s definitely a tough situation. There are so many things to consider. I wish I had some guidance for you.

    • Let the Grandfather know. I have a similar situation. I found out 3 years ago I have a full sister who was adopted out at birth. It was a shock at the time and it took a long time to come to terms with, but am OK with it now. I am 72 years of age.

      • Thank you for sharing your experience with us, John. I cannot imagine what a shock that was to you. I’m glad that you’ve been able to come to terms with it.

  • Amy loved the talk with Judy. Very eye opening. I tried to get the book you have 31 Days to genealogy. Amazon only has the kindle where can I get the book version?

  • Judy and Amy you are both wonderful! Thank you for covering this topic. I work as a Local History Associate in a public library. We have more and more people coming to us wanting help in understanding their DNA results. As you said in the video sometimes we find things that no one expected. As a department we have talked about the ethical standards involved when helping someone understand their DNA results. I appreciate you addressing this topic and will be looking at the geneticgenealogystandards.

    Robin Edwards

  • Judy and Amy. This was a great video! I’m a novice, but am a very avid DNA genealogy learner. So many do not take the aspect discussed in this video into account when sending in DNA tests for relatives. As I work with the DNA testing more and more, I am finding that the surprises found in the results seem to be more frequent that I originally thought that they would be. It has made me realize that we, as a contemporary society, view social situations much differently today than they were viewed by earlier generations, even 40 or 50 years ago. It is certainly something to keep in mind when dealing with a “surprise” that affects someone of those earlier generations who is still living. I know that it has made me more sensitive to ensure that I am handling information with consideration, compassion, and caring. Thank you again for a most informative video. I intend to explore the mentioned websites.

    Dorothy Levandusky

  • Amy, I found that about 75% of the people I asked to test to determine if their grandfather was the father of my mother-in-law (born illegitimately), were very excited to test. The numbers of people who tested (negatively) narrowed the options to one. The grandson of the “last option” wasn’t so enthusiastic, but definitely came around with conversation of a factual nature and a empathetic approach. He has now signed the waiver, and tested. Data has been analyzed and his grandfather identified as the father. He even sent pictures! Sometimes, it works.

  • Very good video,,as my mother recently passed away, I was informed 2 of my siblings are 1/2 siblings,, as they are unaware, the prospect of them having a DNA test is an unsettling thought,,,

  • Good video. Some years ago we found out my husband had a younger half sibling. The good part – he was shown the records in person by an Uncle who was not involved – i.e. we had time to process the info before having to deal with it. Several weeks later we made the phone call to contact the sibling. Worked well for us. Time to process is very important!

  • Amy. Very enlightening info on DNA search. Can you tell me when your book is going to be available in book form? Amazon is still only listing the kindle version. Would love to get a book.

  • Amy,very good video! I found out THIS YEAR that I have a half-sibling: she only was tested AFTER her father(who raised her) had passed away (as she grew up with a lot of problems caused by comments about her father not being her “real” father) she decided to get tested. Instead of being Irish and English, she found out that she had Italian blood! To make a long story short, her daughter helped her to understand her DNA results/found one of my daughters by way of a partial family tree I had posted when I got my results back a few years ago,etc. I live I Brazil now,but we made it a point to get together in the USA in June…and it was a great and very emotional get-together! The upside: my daughters and I now have a larger family! The downside: her mother(who is alive and in her 90’s) first agreed with her daughter,but now doesn’t want to speak with her anymore (and unfortunately some of her brothers and sisters refuse to talk with her,too)…(to tell you the truth,I personally think that what her mother did at the time was the best option,and I probably wouldn’t have talked about it tothe older mother,but she already had…)

    • It sounds as if there were some problems in her family long before her DNA test came into the picture. I’m glad that her connection with you and your daughters has been positive.

  • I asked my brother to do a DNA test and he refused and threw the kit away. Wish he had at least given it back to me so that maybe I could have gotten a refund!

  • As an adoptee who has for years has stressed the importance thinking before doing, using ethical behavior, and remembering that we are not the only characters in our book of life I applaud both Amy and Judy for providing this sage advice.

    In this too ego-driven era of me first, we loose sight of the fact that although we are entitled to know who our family is and our origins, we are not entitled to break down doors to obtain that information. We may ask, but the other person has the right to just say no!, vocally or non-verbally. No trolling, snooping on FB, stalking or other unethical actions allowed.

    I have a younger sibling for whom I have searched for many decades. We were abandoned and separated when she was about 6 months old and I about 2 1/2. The state of adoption has closed sessions and sealed documents and refuses to give me her adoptive name even now-despite knowing that I have documentation (and DNA) to confirm our sisterhood. She knows nothing about her two siblings and my not even realize that she has been an adoptee. Imagine the trauma for her to discover a sister via a DNA lab’s announcement …

    Just one example of why those who search must be cautious in their approaches. Most DNA labs advise about the possibility of ‘surprises’, some of which are more shock than a wonderful gift.

    I have shared your blog with my own FB group, adoptees in search and amongst the general population on FB. Thanks again!

    • I am in agreement with your comments; today there seems to be a culture of entitlement – “I have a right to know ….” attitude which the advertising campaigns behind DNA testing are promoting. There is so much more to family than the science of genetics. The people who raised you are actual family, not necessarily those who have genetic ties. So much of family is cultural – the places, foods, experiences, music, celebrations – its way more than who has red hair, or brown eyes. Just because I discover Italian genes does it suddenly imply I should enjoy pasta? With the hyper advertising campaign of Ancestry and others, too many people in my opinion are believing the hype. I know who I am, and it isn’t dependent on a DNA kit. To me, the implication that who we are depends on where a genetic ancestor lived hundreds of years ago is quite ludicrous.

  • Amy & Judy I really enjoyed the video. I found out about 4 years ago that I had a half brother. I talked to him on the phone but never got to meet him, before he passed. I know he was my half brother because he sent me pictures. He sounded like one of my brothers and looked like the other. Wish I would have known about him sooner. He was in his 80’s and i’m in my 70’s a lot of years wasted..

  • Fascinating podcast, Amy and Judy. You’re right: a genetic fact might rock somebody’s world. So far I’ve had no surprises (except for exactly how *very* Irish I am!). We do need to make people aware if we ask them to test that there may be a surprise in store for them.

  • My father was adopted in 1924 when he was about 2 years old. Growing up I knew that he had been adopted and also his birth name but nothing about his biological parents. He was raised by people who he always referred to as his “grandparents”. I’ve just recently started looking into who his parents might have been. I have a few hints but nothing concrete. Unfortunately, where I live, adoption records are permanently sealed once the adopted person is deceased. I’m thinking that DNA might be the only way to help identify his birth parents.