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Thursday, May 9, 2024

DNA Tests are Uncovering the True Prevalence of Incest

Sarah Zhang
The Atlantic
Originally poste 18 MAR 24

Here is an excerpt:

In 1975, a psychiatric textbook put the frequency of incest at one in a million. In the 1980s, feminist scholars argued, based on the testimonies of victims, that incest was far more common than recognized, and in recent years, DNA has offered a new kind of biological proof. Widespread genetic testing is uncovering case after secret case of children born to close biological relatives-providing an unprecedented accounting of incest in modern society.

The geneticist Jim Wilson, at the University of Edinburgh, was shocked by the frequency he found in the U.K. Biobank, an anonymized research database: One in 7,000 people, according to his unpublished analysis, was born to parents who were first-degree relatives-a brother and a sister or a parent and a child. "That's way, way more than I think many people would ever imagine," he told me. And this number is just a floor: It reflects only the cases that resulted in pregnancy, that did not end in miscarriage or abortion, and that led to the birth of a child who grew into an adult who volunteered for a research study.
Most of the people affected may never know about their parentage, but these days, many are stumbling into the truth after AncestryDNA and 23andMe tests.

Neither AncestryDNA nor 23andMe informs customers about incest directly, so the thousand-plus cases [genetic genealogist CeCe Moore] knows of all come from the tiny proportion of testers who investigated further. This meant, for example, uploading their DNA profiles to a third-party genealogy site to analyze what are known as "runs of homozygosity," or ROH: long stretches where the DNA inherited from one's mother and father are identical. For a while, one popular genealogy site instructed anyone who found high ROH to contact Moore. She would call them, one by one, to explain the jargon's explosive meaning. Unwittingly, she became the keeper of what might be the world's largest database of people born out of incest.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, Moore told me, the parents are a father and a daughter or an older brother and a younger sister, meaning a child's existence was likely evidence of sexual abuse. She had no obvious place to send people reeling from such revelations, and she was not herself a trained therapist.

Here is a summary: 

The article "DNA Tests Are Uncovering the True Prevalence of Incest" explores how at-home DNA test kits like AncestryDNA and 23andMe are revealing that children born through incest are more common than previously thought. The story follows Steve Edsel, a man in his 40s who discovered that he is the child of two first-degree relatives: a sister and her older brother. The piece delves into the emotional journey of individuals like Steve who uncover shocking truths about their biological parents through DNA testing, shedding light on a sensitive and taboo topic prevalent across cultures. The narrative intertwines personal stories of discovery, truth, and belonging with statistical insights, highlighting the complexities and challenges faced by those who uncover such familial secrets.