Using DNA to identify the remains those long dead is about more than just the historical record; it can also be seen as an ‘act of care’, writes Jackie Leach Scully of Newcastle University.
Scully contacted dozens of individuals who donated DNA in an effort to identify the remains of Australian soldiers killed during the battle of Fromelles in 1916. As she writes in the current issue of New Genetics and Society: “When they outlined their reasons for taking part, these were more than just curiosity about a long-lost relative or interest in being part of a high profile and prestigious national project. Many email respondents indicated a powerful emotional investment.”
Scully recalls that around half of her correspondents spoke of the desire to ‘look after’ or otherwise ‘care’ for the lost soldier himself; many others spoke of their involvement in the project as a way of caring for another family member (‘doing it for mother’) or for their wider family, to prove just how much their own ‘family and its history matters’ to them. For some, taking part was also a form of ‘self-care’, confirming their view of themselves as people who care.
Scully concludes: “The use of care language suggests that identifying a missing relative, even where there is no practical necessity to do so, may be emotionally and morally necessary to family members because doing so represents care.”
In addition to her study of the Fromelles case, Scully offers a comprehensive survey of the moral and ethical issues surrounding the use of DNA identification – many of which relate to the very framing of participation as ‘an act of care’ and the ‘normalisation’ of the process. As she observes: “If identification is understood as an act of care, a refusal by some family members to be involved can be taken by others to imply a lack of care.” Scully also discusses the ethical and practical challenges posed by mass fatalities, the consequences of genetic relationships being revealed to be ‘not as reported’ and the disappointment and distress often caused by not being able to test dead, adopted or untraceable family members.
This article is a fascinating insight into how and why we care for our dead. It also makes obvious the need for ethics, policies and practices related to DNA identification – of both the historic and recent dead – to keep up with the science.
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