In March 2019, I wrote about the Ethics in Forensic Genealogy. I indicated that while there was room for joy, because we would be able to solve old crimes, that there was also room for concern. In part 2, I’d like to highlight some of those concerns.
Forensic Genealogy is not just instrumental in catching serial killers that have for the longest time eluded law enforcement. Right now, it is helping to solve Baby Jane/John Doe cases.
We have all read about cases where newborns were found in public toilets, dumpsters, buried in backyards, or hidden in freezers. Justifiably horrified, we search for the biological parents, right? Wrong, because despite the fact that we highlight in the media that we are concerned for the mother’s health, we focus mostly on her while it takes two to tango.
In this article, several concerns are raised that make you question whether forensic genealogy should be federally regulated. “In the United States, there are no laws that dictate how genetic genealogy can and cannot be used by police, but in 2019 the Department of Justice proposed guidelines for its use. The draft policy says law enforcement agencies should generally use the tool only in murder and rape cases, and as a last resort at that.” A final Department Policy on Forensic Genealogy should have been released this year.
What is clear is that the first priority seemed to be murder and rape cases, not newborns. Having said that, I am not dismissing the value of the life of a newborn. What bugs me is the lack of regulations, the lack of prioritizing, the various and disproportionate sentences, and the one-sided hunt for the parents of those Baby John/Jane Does.
According to many research papers, mothers who kill or allow their newborns to die shortly after birth, are not doing so in a premediated manner. These mothers are often very young, teens even, who have gotten pregnant sometimes under unimaginable circumstances such as rape and incest. They are often not in a stable relationship, are financially dependent on others (often the abuser) and later on in life, these women pose no threat to society. They are alone, afraid, have nobody to help with the baby, and in a moment of sheer panic, they commit neonaticide; they kill their newborn or allow it to die. According to the article, “a few hundred neonaticides occur in the United States each year, but the true incidence is unknown.”
Contributing to these young mothers’ terror is that they may not know who the father is or, they know full well but can never reveal it. Abuse by a family member or someone in a trusted capacity, are factors that push these young mothers towards abandoning their babies. They hide the pregnancy, act as if nothing is going on, until their water breaks.
If anyone was to find out that they are pregnant, these young mothers would face shaming, bullying, abandonment, getting kicked out of school (often the only support network) or get fired.
Because of all these factors and the lack of regulation, certain labs are not keen on taking Baby Doe cases. Others separate the genetic research from the judicial investigation and say that they are not the ones who ultimately decide whether to prosecute a mother or not. Technically that is true but is it morally right to try and find her? Is it ethical if only the mother is prosecuted and sentenced and not the father?
Labs have to question their priority or role: are they instrumental in giving a Baby Doe their last name or, are they instrumental in prosecuting women who pose no risk to society as opposed to serial rapists and murderers. Maybe you think that it isn’t fair to make a lab take sides on these issues. And you would be right. It isn’t on a lab to decide, it is on the Department of Justice to outline priorities, to regulate DNA searches, to ensure equality in sentencing across all states, and to enforce that equal effort is made to find both parents.
To give you an idea how much work is involved in finding a DNA match I took this quote from the article. “When police upload a DNA profile to these databases, they can only see familial matches to that person; they don’t have access to just anyone in the database. These matches show how much DNA a relative shares with the suspect or victim. For instance, full siblings share around 50% of their DNA, while third cousins share just 2% or less. Using this information, plus public records like marriage records and obituaries, genealogists construct a family tree to narrow down a list of suspects.”
This brings me to the last point that we must consider when debating the Ethics of Forensic Genealogy: knowing how much work goes into these cases, how much money it costs, and given that the initial priority was to search for murderers and rapists, how frantically should we be searching for women who decades ago abandoned their newborns?
I’d like to end with something that Prof. Michelle Oberman, Law Professor at Santa Clara University and author of two books about mothers who kill their children, said. “If you develop the atom bomb, do you have to drop it?”