Friday 18 April 2014

Ethics in Genealogy – Part 2: If We Decide To Share Information Then What Do We Share?

In my last blog I dealt in passing with the topic of 'what should we share'. This blog is a more in-depth look at what I think we should consider and is a reflection of my approach when dealing with some very delicate issues in my books, publications and even in the data I store on my computer:

Issues With Sensitive Data

When writing my second book The Families Catudal I had to decide how to handle a very sensitive issue and that was the issue of adoption. I had six individuals who were alive and who I knew had been adopted. One of the five was not legally adopted but was raised by an Aunt and Uncle. It was always a known secret. One was adopted as a young child by his grandparents and raised without being told of his adoption until uncovering the truth himself at the age of 30. Two of the adoptees were Native babies adopted by a couple who could not have children themselves. I am not sure if they ever knew of their Native background. Another of the six was born out of wedlock while her mother was still married to someone else. Once the first spouse died the mother married the child’s birth father. The child was then adopted by the birth father. Only one of the six was adopted without secrecy and lies. Why is any of these explanations important? To show you how complicated the issue of adoption is and why it is all but impossible to document correctly without hurting a lot of people.
You might be asking yourself “What’s the big deal?” Well there are some major issues: Do you document an adoption when it was a open secret? If the adoptee does not want his or her status known do you document it anyway because you have the data? What if the adoptee’s birth parent(s) want credit for the birth of the child who they gave up for adoption but the child does not want it exposed? What about the illegitimate child’s right not to have that particular piece of information out there for all to know? What about the generations to come who look for their own family history and, because no one documented an adoption, end up never knowing their real heritage?
How I have handled this information was to ask each person who had been adopted, when is was possible to do so, how they wanted the information presented. That is how I handled the issue in my first book too and still ended up getting a great deal of heat from one birth parent who felt that they had the right to have all of their children documented whether or not they were then adopted out or not. I haven’t changed my mind on this issue and think that the generations that come after will have to work it out for themselves. It is my opinion that you honour the wishes of the one who was adopted. It is far more important to respect those who are affected by disclosure now than to document something that someone in the future may or may not find useful.

Moral Issues

Adoption is not the only sensitive issue where people have differing opinions on how the information should be documented and discussed.
I know of several cases where a child was sexually abused by their father or uncle. In some of these cases the people directly involved have all passed away, yet I have been contacted by extended family members asking me not to write about these circumstances in my book. The same is true for spousal abuses, suicides and illnesses – specifically anything to do with mental illness. Someone made the comment to me that to publish this type of information would make the immediate family look bad. Therefore, I have made it a point not to discuss or divulge certain types of information about people living or thought to be living in my publications. When the person or persons who are or were affected are no longer alive I have asked their families for permission to include sensitive information about their relatives. If I could not ask because I had no contact to the immediate family I simply did not add the information. The types of information that I have been very careful with are, in part, stories of child abuse, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, incest, suicide, adoption, sexual orientation, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse or addiction and criminal activity.
Two issues about documenting this type of information are: it may hurt those still living and secondly, maybe the common knowledge that ‘Uncle so and so’ liked little girls was not true. Maybe he was just a bit strange and somehow a rumour was started to scare children away from him. Who knows?
I have also not even documented any of these issues in my database. The problem with documenting sensitive or speculative data is that eventually when one dies someone else will then be in possession of ‘the truth’. Then what? Will they too feel the moral responsibility to honour and respect confidential information. It is for this reason that when I do know something for certain about someone but have been asked specifically not to divulge the information then I have opted not to document that information anywhere at all.
In saying this, I have documented some illnesses, the ones that have no impact on those living or where I have been specifically asked to document such information, and one case of incest. I documented the one incest case because it was the very first such conviction of its type in New France and happened to be a very distant relative.
What about information that you know, absolutely know, is true. Should you pass it on in a publication/book/blog? I had two very large dilemmas about two different Catudals: One was an arsonist and another was a pedophile. Both were tried in court. The pedophile was convicted. It is a long story about the arsonist who, if I were to explain what happened, would help to identify him. Suffice to say that he did set a number of fires that caused a lot of damage but thankfully took no lives. Both of these men are alive. In the arsonist's case, I'm not sure if his wife even knows about his past. So, the question was, do I publish that information in the book I was writing or not. I chose not to. It was just too great a risk of damaging innocent lives; by that I mean the extended family of these perpetrators.
These really weren't the only dilemmas I had but they certainly were the most extreme. I guess each of us in the position of passing on sensitive information, and that means most of us, need to check our moral compasses and make sure they're working before taking that step of revealing information simply because they are in possession of that information.

Privacy and Identity

I never publish identifying information, birth date and birth location, for anyone alive or thought to be alive for the very unlikely event that that data could be used to steal someone’s identity. This is a very controversial issue and there are strong arguments on both sides of the table.
One side says that if you look in the Internet at social networks, such as Facebook and Google+, you will see that the majority of people give out that information freely and they are not necessarily victims of identity theft. What can having information on someone’s birth date, birth place and mother’s maiden name actually get you? some people ask.
On the other side, I remember having my wallet stolen. I went to those that be and told them what had happened. I did not have any documentation to support my claim because all of that had been stolen. They asked me my mother’s maiden name, my birth date and where I was born. After answering those three questions correctly they re-issued my birth certificate to me. I used it to get my driver’s licence. I used my birth certificate and driver’s licence to get my health card and so on.
Now-a-days, at least in Canada (where I was brought-up and in Germany where I now live), you have to provide a guarantor in order to prove your identity. However, not all guarantors are checked for validity. That is why I always choose to side on the side of extreme caution and don't document identifying information on those living or thought to be living.

Family Secrets About Illnesses

My experience after distributing my first book, The Extended Catudal Family History, was that most were pleased that I did not divulge certain medical ‘secrets’ about their particular families yet displeased that I did not add information about other families.
A case in point was that in my last book I had added information on someone who I myself knew well and as such knew him to have been mentally handicapped. He had since died so I made mention of that fact. I was asked by his family members to remove that information from my next book because it made the family ‘look bad’. Yet someone from another family wrote to tell me that it was so interesting to know about a disability from that particular family as they too knew someone from a related family who was also mentally handicapped and thought that maybe more of this type of information should appear in the next book. The thinking was that we may be able to spot health trends specific to the Catudal families lines.
Keeping that in mind, I recently posted a question to a Catudal group in the social network Facebook asking if any members of their particular line of Catudals had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. I know that my particular line of Catudals has been hard hit with this degenerative disease. I said that they could answer me through e-mail if they preferred. Several answered using Facebook but most answered through e-mail asking me not to divulge the information being passed on to me as it would upset family members. Of course I wouldn’t knowingly upset anyone but it saddens me to know that we could be helping one another to be alert to potential health risks but we cannot because most would rather that information be with-held as they feel that it would put a bad light on their particular families.

Things Change

After I published my first book and started working on my second book I had gotten to the point of adding family pictures or updating family pictures to add to the new book: A number of couples had since separated or divorced; a couple of families had become estranged. When I contacted those families where things had changed or become strained I was met with what one could best describe as hostel reactions to the idea of having pictures of either themselves, former spouses, their children, their parents and any other combination added to the book. I did as they asked but it saddens me because in every case the person or persons being removed or not added were long time members of the Catudal family or one of its extended family members. In a couple cases I was even asked to remove the divorced spouse’s name entirely; that I did not do as that is a part of public record but I did remove all pictures when requested to do so. That was very sad.

In Conclusion

Years ago I was asked by someone if I could tell her some information about her grandmother, such as, what she was like, what did she like to do, did she suffer from any ailments, what was her relationship to her siblings and so on. I was stymied. The person asking was a very distant cousin, something like a cousin 7 times removed or some wild number like that. She was asking me? We would all like to know what our distant relatives were like. Did great great grandpa run moonshine during prohibition days? Do we have heroes or deserters in our family history? Do we have people in our family history who did extraordinary things? Does our particular family history line have a history of depression that we don't know about? There are a million questions which all of us would love to have the answers to but very few of us would like that sort of information that affects us specifically to be known about or shared with others. That is the nature of the beast. Do we share and if so what do we share is certainly not clear-cut by any means. I have only give out my position on that issue. I'd love for you to leave me a comment sharing your views.