Bioethics Blogs

What is a Family? Refugee DNA and the Possible Truths of Kinship by Carole McGranahan

Tashi thought they were his kids. They were his kids. He was the only father they had ever known. He had been their father since the day each of his four children was born. After being recognized as a Convention Refugee in Canada, he applied for permanent residence and listed his wife and children as his “overseas dependents” on his application. Finally he would be reunited with his family who had waited in a Tibetan refugee camp in South Asia while he made the uncertain journey to Canada via a well-worn route through the USA. He had dutifully written down their names, sexes, ages, and dates of birth on his application. He had told the truth. But then the Canadian government asked for a DNA test as proof that the children were his. His claiming them was not enough because, as the government asserts, refugees lie. And then a different truth was revealed. He was not the genetic father of two of his children, although his wife was their genetic mother. Canadian government officials decided that Tashi had been untruthful in claiming these children—his children—on his permanent resident application. His request to bring his family to Canada was denied.

What sort of truths do DNA tests provide? What are the social and family truths that precede and exceed DNA? What is the responsibility of the anthropologist to confirm or challenge these truths?

Tashi’s struggle to reunite his family came to me as a legal case in need of anthropological expertise. It was a legal case that needed to also be an ethnographic one.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.