There’s a chilling story on the front page of today’s New York Times. It’s about one woman–Victoria Montenegro–who learned as an adult that the man who raised her had stolen her from her parents who he then had tortured and killed. This was part of a larger effort–apparently unique to Argentina–in which the military junta took children from those they deemed enemies of the state. I’ve written about it before as it has become a fairly well-known chapter of modern history. Nevertheless, this specific account of one young woman’s experience is startling.
Ms. Montenegro was (understandably, to my mind) unwilling to embrace the truth. But eventually DNA testing left her facing an undeniable truth. Her parents were Hilda and Roque Montenegro. They had been kidnapped by the junta when she was 13 days old and she was taken from them. The man who directed their torture and murder claimed her as his daughter when she was four months old.
The DNA provides irrefutable evidence of Montenegro’s heritage and, as such, it is damning evidence of the truth. It’s value in this regard is undeniable. But is apart from it’s role as evidence of a terrible history, what is the actual importance of the genetic link in this story?
Here’s what I mean. Suppose Victoria Montenegro had not been genetically related to Hilda and Roque Montenegro. Suppose instead Victoria had been conceived with third-party gametes from other people and then that Hilda Montenegro had given birth to her. Would this make the events that followed any less appalling? They would be harder to prove–because you wouldn’t have the DNA evidence. But the difficulty of proof is a matter apart from the wrongfulness of the act. If it could be proved, would it be any less wrong?
Or suppose the Montenegros had adopted Victoria at the time she was born. Would that have excused the actions of the junta? Would it make this a lesser offense?
For me the answers here are clear–it wouldn’t matter. What makes the underlying conduct reprehensible is the violent shattering of an existing family. The people who raised Victoria Montenegro–and particularly her father–perpetrated a vile crime that was directly to their benefit and then spent decades lying to her about that. The DNA was the clinching evidence, but for me it is just that–evidence.
DNA is powerful in many ways in our culture today. It frequently serves as convincing evidence of what has happened in the past. I think it is important to be careful, however, to separate its evidentiary function from other roles it may play.