Ethical issues in genealogy

The other weekend, I binged a bit on old episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and I suddenly came across an episode I had completely forgotten about, which actually ties in quite nicely with ethical issues in genealogy.

For those who have never seen CSI, it basically centres around a fictional Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation unit and the cases they, and the Las Vegas police, solve.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens in this episode, then stop reading here.

This particular episode concerns a dead genealogist, who was found in the house of one of the principal characters, Dr. Al Robins. Al’s wife is initially suspected because the genealogist is found in her bed, with only her in the house. Long story short, the killer turned out to be related to one of the other cases that the genealogist had been working on. The killer had followed the genealogist to his meeting with Mrs. Robins and killed him, when Mrs. Robins was on the phone outside.

The motive for killing the genealogist is the bit which relates to ethics in genealogy. The genealogist had a client who wanted to find living male relatives on her mother’s side of the family and this actually uncovered a difficult family secret. The killer (who initially had no knowledge of his birth family) found out that his father was actually his own brother and his mother was also his grandmother (meaning that incest had been committed between a mother and her son)! Incidentally, the genealogist’s client would have been the killer’s niece and cousin!

Aside from the mind-boggling family relationships, the main issue here is one of privacy and ethics. Now, the genealogist in this story had no idea about the incest; he had followed the paper records back to the killer and had asked whether the killer wanted to be contacted by the genealogists’ client. It just so happens that the killer found his mother/grandmother on his own and got a decidedly negative response which led him to kill the genealogist. The killer even expressed the wish that he had never found out about his birth family and the incest and that it had all been left alone.

This brings up issues surrounding our own searches for living family and for adoptees as well. Will the family you are searching for want to be found? Will your search uncover sensitive and emotionally distressing issues? And, if distressing issues are found, should you tell people if they don’t already know? Will they want to know? This can also be said for living relatives that you do know. Often, issues such as illegitimacy, mental health and criminality were not spoken about at all, because of the stigma that was attached to them. You might have relatives that will not want to talk about any of these issues and/or will not want to know if you find out something like that yourself.

I found myself in a similar situation, which I will talk about in my next post, but when dealing with sensitive issues and living relatives, you have to stop and think before you let the excitement of a discovery get the better of you. Unfortunately, there are no definite answers if you do find yourself in an ethical dilemma, but think about what the other party might want or not want and whether any discovery you make will affect them on an emotional level. Finding out that your grandfather had an illegitimate child that you never knew about might be a journey of discovery to you, but will the rest of your family, both new and old, feel the same way? It is also about giving people the choice to know or not and coming to terms with the fact that your new-found relative may not want to contact you.

Various articles and blogs have been written about this topic in recent years, especially due to the rise of genetic testing in genealogy- another technique used in the CSI episode. Different professional organisations also have their own ethical guidelines for members and it has been a subject of certain talks at various Conferences I have been to lately. It is certainly an issue that even those pursuing genealogy as a hobby should be thinking about.

Some other useful reading includes Judy G. Russell’s ‘The Legal Genealogist’ blog ( It is written from an American legal point of view but does talk a lot about different ethical situations. Blaine Bettinger’s book ‘The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy’ talks a little bit about the ethics of DNA testing and various websites such as FamilySearch and Ancestry have written blog posts that talk about ethical issues. A colleague has also recently published ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy’ (Dr. Penny Walters).

So, do continue your journey into your past, but remember to think twice if you are discovering living relatives and potentially distressing events!

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