Family Matters

‘Want to Know My Future’? Parents Grapple with Delving into Their Kids’ DNA

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This week’s TIME cover story (available to subscribers here) asks a simple question with a complicated answer. Sophisticated DNA testing is allowing parents to learn more about the health of their children than ever before, but how much do we really want to know? Doctors are starting to use genome sequencing, which scans a person’s entire genetic code, to map the DNA of children, with the hope of catching diseases early and offering targeted treatments. But the tests can also detect mutations for diseases that may not develop for decades, if at all. Think about it for a minute: would you want to know if your toddler has an increased risk of getting cancer?

(MORE: What’s Making Adam Sick? A Contest to Sequence Three Kids’ Genomes)

I’ve spent the last few months looking into the promises and pitfalls of sequencing children’s genomes, reporting that turned into a five-part series on TIME.com and this week’s cover story. One of the moms who shared her experience with me is Laurie Hunter, a high school English teacher in New Jersey. A mother of three, Hunter described how a DNA test administered to figure out what was stunting her oldest daughter’s development ended not with an answer but with unnerving information that both she and Amanda, who is 14, are missing seven genes — one of which increases their risk of developing a rare type of tumor.

Her experience highlights the challenges of the latest genetic tests. As they become more widely available, growing numbers of people will have to decide how much they want to know about the secrets within their genes. Some genetic typos cause disease; some don’t. And in between is a vast gray area where scientists just don’t know what the changes mean.

It’s the nature of parenthood to think big thoughts about what the future holds for your children. But moms and dads haven’t typically spent much time musing about the genetic tendencies that can increase their kids’ risk of developing everything from Alzheimer’s to obesity.

Part of this week’s cover story looks at the debate within the medical community over how much information doctors should share with patients. Would you want to know all of your child’s future health risks, even if they point to conditions that wouldn’t develop for decades and have no effective prevention strategy, let alone cure? Let us know: if it’s your baby, would you want to know his or her future?

MORE: Scientists Decode an Unborn Baby’s DNA. Is It Cause for Celebration — or Alarm?