Carnegie Mellon University
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Incidental findings in the use of DNA to identify human remains: an ethical assessment.

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journal contribution
posted on 2013-02-01, 00:00 authored by Lisa S. Parker, Alex LondonAlex London, Jay AronsonJay Aronson

DNA analysis is increasingly used to identify the remains of victims of conflicts and disasters. This is especially true in cases where remains are badly damaged and fragmented, or where antemortem records are unavailable. Incidental findings (IFs)-that is, genetics-related information for which investigators were not looking-may result from these identification efforts employing DNA analysis. Because of the critical role played by family members of the missing in identification efforts, as well as the familial nature of DNA, identification initiatives employing DNA analysis are particularly prone to reveal IFs about familial relationships, such as misattributed paternity or false beliefs about sibling relationships. Despite forensic scientists' widespread awareness of the possibility of generating IFs, to date there has been relatively little explicit guidance about their management. This paper fills that gap. It offers substantive guidance about the ethical management of IFs in this context. To ensure that the analysis addresses actual needs and practices in the field, one author (JDA) conducted semi-structured interviews with key informants from six regionally diverse organizations involved in post-conflict or post-disaster identification efforts. The paper first describes how methods of DNA analysis give rise to IFs. Next, it explains the importance of developing an ethically justified general policy for managing IFs and discusses features of DNA identification efforts that are relevant to such a policy. Then it presents an argument in support of a general policy of nondisclosure-specifically, that considerations of fair access to the individual and social benefits of identification efforts, and the concern to minimize and fairly distribute the risks of participation, support a policy of nondisclosure. It concludes by considering some implications of this argument for the choice among scientific practices involved in using DNA analysis to identify human remains, as well as for managing non-genetic incidental findings.


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This is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version is available at



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