DNA Tests of Disabled Kids Uncover Evidence of Incest

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Advances in genetic testing allow doctors unprecedented access to our DNA. But sometimes these tests reveal disturbing information that doctors weren’t looking for.

In a letter to the journal The Lancet, Dr. Arthur Beaudet of Baylor College of Medicine reports that physicians using DNA tests to seek the roots of developmental problems in disabled children may inadvertently uncover evidence of incest.

USA Today reports:

During lab testing of disabled children, Beaudet and colleagues detected about 10 cases of genetic patterns that can appear only in children born from father-daughter, mother-son or brother-sister incest.

In a normal birth, a child gets half of his or her genes from one parent, half from the other. Those genes don’t look alike. New chromosome-testing kits for disability genes can spot an overlap of identical genes that can result only from incest.

As genetic testing becomes more widespread, doctors may increasingly face ethical dilemmas about what to do with the information. In cases of likely incest in which the child’s mother is a minor, doctors are required to report child abuse immediately. But appropriate legal action in cases involving adult mothers is less clear.

While birth defects and disabilities are common in children of closely-related parents, most children with disabilities are not the product of incest. Beaudet calls for medical institutions to set guidelines for doctors, based on advice from geneticists and ethicists.