Genetics and The Extended Family

Here’s a thought-provoking story from the front page of the NYT.   As is often the case it is worth reading because I’m sure different things will strike different people.  I’m just going to touch on a couple of things that strike me.

Khrys Vaughn learned she was adopted when she was 42.    She decided to search for her origins by using a company that provides DNA testing and then matches you up with people you’re related to.   Through this process she located a third-cousin, Jennifer Grigsby.   (Grigsby had her DNA tested because she was interested in tracing her genetic lineage.)

This month, [Vaughn] drove 208 miles from her hometown here to Evansville, Ind., to meet her third cousin, the first relative to respond to her e-mails. Mrs. Vaughan is black and her cousin is white, and they have yet to find their common ancestor. But Mrs. Vaughan says that does not matter.

“Somebody is related to me in this world,” she said. “Somebody out there has my blood. I can look at her and say, ‘This is my family.’ ”

A few things from this story strike me initially.   First, and without any attention to the details, there’s an industry developing around the whole DNA testing/tracing thing.  It is, like the ART industry, it is largely a for-profit industry.  I’m not sure how important that is, really, but it’s true for both of them so it’s worth observing, I think.

It’s also an expanding industry and the more people who decide to DNA testing, the more matches will show up, the more stories like this one will show up and, I suspect, the more people will do DNA testing.  So I think it fair to say we’re looking at the early stages of a fast-growing phenomenon.   Realistically we should expect that more and more people will have access to this sort of information over the coming years.

Moving more to the details of the individual story, Vaughn is one of those people who was deceived about her origins.   In their defense, her parents initially made that choice in the 1970s, when things might have looked different to them.   But I don’t think it’s the best option and it is increasingly an untenable option.  If DNA testing continues to proliferate, the idea that your child will never know becomes fanciful, and if they’re going to know, I think it’s pretty clear your better off telling them yourself.   (That said, this story does not dwell on any trauma to Ms. Vaughn that resulted from the concealment and revelation.)

Beyond that, I find the sense of connection between Vaughn and Grigsby really striking.   For a time last year (or maybe the year before) I earnestly worked away at my own geneaology.   I turned up second and third cousins in a variety of places.   But I have to say that in the end, I realized I wasn’t all that interested in the project, largely because I didn’t feel terribly much connection with the distant relatives.

I don’t mean to suggest that my experience is the norm–I have no idea, really.   But it does seem to me that experiences here must vary and there is absolutely no chance that the NYT will run a front page story that says “Shapiro found her third cousins but didn’t really care about that.”   You wouldn’t even see a story that said “Vaughn found her third-cousins but didn’t find it very important.”  What I mean to suggest is that the impression created by media is necessarily skewed.    Inevitably the only stories that get media coverage will be those that match with one set of experiences.

Finally (for the moment, because I don’t want to go too long here) I find it really interesting that the genetic connection trumps race, which is often experienced as a fundamental difference in our society.   Vaughn is Black and Grigsby is White, but this matters less to the women than the fact of the genetic connection.   (The connection must be the result of some common forebear several generations back and as yet unidentified.)     There’s something really interesting (and perhaps hopeful) here.   I think we often think of race as something that is both fixed and genetically defined.   The truth is much more complicated.  Like so many other things race is at least in part socially constructed, such that a single ancestor can have descendants who are identify as different races.   Maybe a better understanding of our common heritages will help us get beyond some of the unproductive manifestations of race in the United States today.

25 responses to “Genetics and The Extended Family

  1. You might have covered this before, but DNA testing has also helped some donor-conceived people find their donors:
    (full article only available with subscription)

    • I have indeed talked about this at some point, though I don’t I’ve seen think that specific article. The arrival of fairly reliable and cheap DNA testing has really changed a lot. I think we’re probably at the end of anonymity–by which I mean, it’s increasingly fanciful to rely on anonymity of gamete providers or of birth parents.

  2. Julie – I think you are either interested in geneology or you aren’t. Thankfully there always seems to be at least one family member interested – all you have to do is see how many family trees are on ancestry. I don’t see anything strange about connection trumping race – they are related.

    I got the geneology bug from dad who due to his age had stories of his relatives going back to the mid 1800’s – family trees are more than just statitical data – it is the why’s, how’s, what they lived through and how they succeeded that makes it real. Learning that you can determine a lot of what made each individual tick.

    • Perhaps this is true–that one is either interested or not. As with so many things, it could just be a matter of taste/inclination. In a way that is perhaps my point, though–It isn’t a universal.

      And you’ve prompted me to comment that I’m more interested in tracing back to ancestors who made great journeys, etc., than I am tracing laterally. Though of cousre some third or fourth cousin out there might have the information about our common forebear. I guess the point here is that there are different aspects to geneoloty that might interest people.

      Finally, some of the research I’ve seen that grows from Donor Sibling Registry data suggested that single-mother families might be more inclined to seek contact with genetic relatives of the kids than were two parent families and I recall (though I could be wrong about this) a suggestion that it might relate to how much a need for more family is experienced. If I’m remembering properly, perhaps this is also relevant with geneology.

  3. Julie if I could shed a little light on the third cousin thing – I LOVE LOVE LOVE helping people locate their family members but even I can admit that a third cousin, is kinda nothing to pee the floor over. But third cousins have surnames that just might be the same as the surname of your immediate family, immediate family meaning those ones you should be communicating with about health issues, those ones you don’t want to french kiss. So I can see why this woman drove 200 miles to meet her third cousin because she is going to sit in her cousin’s house and look at the photo albums for hours. They will talk and talk and talk, her cousin will call her cousins until someone remembers hearing that Great Aunt Stacy’s first husband was black.

    She’s trying to make her way home and she’s on her way.

    No mention of any trauma? She probably adores the people who raised her and would not trade her life with them for the world. That is in fact what most adopted people say, what most people who are the offspring of donors say and to a lesser extent what some quasi marital people say. So your right DNA is not essential for a person to perform parental duties and therefore be viewed as a parent in the eyes of the child they raise. But the world does not revolve around the social parent’s feelings. Telling a child that they were adopted or that they are donor conceived (i really hate that term) may get them to feel like its no big deal and that they are perfectly satisfied with the family raising them – but making them happy with those who raise them is not the only issue to be dealt with. The tougher job will be helping that person come to terms with why the person that made them did not want to raise them, why they did not care to keep in contact why they did not tell their relatives about the existence of their offspring. Tougher still is helping them understand why so many people are conspiring to conceal the identity of their relatives from them. Why is this information not concealed from everyone else why just them? Why are they not worthy of being acknowledged by their relatives why was it necessary to cut off contact with all those people? Why would their mother go out of her way to reproduce with someone who did not want to stick around and take care of them? Why would their mother think she could replace the bio parent with her partner when it would have been less hurtful to simply supplement him? So the trauma of not knowing until she was 42 will have little or no impact on how much she loves the people who raised her. She just wants to meet the family that didn’t.

    • Yes, you are right about the third-cousin thing. It’s a door to other things as well as an end in itself. But I still think that reactions to it vary–to how much you find in common, how much you even are inclined to do the poring over old pictures, etc.

      I don’t mean to say there is or isn’t trauma. That wasn’t the point of the story and so there’s no reason they should talk about it. I make no assumptions. I just thought it was noteworthy that it wasn’t there because it often is a theme.

      I agree with about the first half of your long first paragraph. But then we diverge. I don’t think that the reason people should be honest with their kids is because it will make their kids like them more. I just think it is the right thing to do. I suppose I also think it is prudent–that the chances are immense that the child will find out and that this can so easily lead to heartache for everyone, not just the parent. But this is a small difference.

      More importantly I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about the last part of what you say–about helping people come to terms with the fact that the person who made them didn’t want to raise them. In the case of a person who provides gametes, I wouldn’t say the gamete provider made them and then chose not to raise them. (This seems closer to a description of adoption–and particularly the birth mother’s position.) I think as far as many people (including many I’ve talked to) are concerned, the gamete provider just gave up some material to people who did want the child and then the people who wanted the child took over. Thus, there isn’t (necessarily) an abandonment experience. I understand that some people have this experience, but many do not.

      And here I do think how people talk about use of third party gametes matters, and it’s why I so frequently disagree with you. If you tell people over and over again they have been abandoned by their true parents, they may start to feel them. But if you don’t paint that picture for them–if you tell them they were conceived with gametes provided by someone who wanted to help someone else have a child, I don’t see why they’d feel abandoned. I’m pretty convinced that this is a place where we do create the reality for people and it is in our power to talk about it in ways that makes it better or ways that make it worse.

  4. I use those DNA sites all the time to help fathers find the children they lost when they donated sperm. The third cousins are essential. I take the list of cousin surnames and I wrote a formula that looks at the data base of licensed physicians in various states looking for doctors with those surnames and then I determine if those doctors meet other relevant criteria like having attended the right school or having the right specialty. They I write them and let them know if they did donate they should respond, because of the surname match if I don’t hear back I have to move on to other members of that family who might be more interested in talking to see if they are willing to DNA test against the person I’m helping. This is just in case they are thinking of lying that they know other members of the family will end up hearing from us anyway they might as well talk. No sense putting it off.

    • I’m interested but confused. You start with the gamete provider (that’s who you’re calling the father, right?) and look at his third cousins? Why would doctors who were related to third-cousins of gamete providers be important?

      Or do you mean you start with the person who was conceived with third party gametes and then locate third cousins of that person and then look for a doctor with the same name as the third-cousin? (This seems like it might work because because providers were so frequenlty medical students?)

      • Yes gamete providers are frequently said to be medical students, interns or fellows at the Universities where the women were inseminated or in the region where the semen was donated. They are, I’m finding out, frequently not students, but the actual physicians themselves – back in the day that is. The ones donating to the big companies are med students.

        If a person has a list of surnames of their first cousins you have more to go on than if you had nothing. Remember the people that join those DNA databases are often adopted or created by a donor so you take the surnames with a grain of salt.

        Every state has a website where you can check to see if a person is a licensed physician. They all give you a list of actions against the guy, year graduated area of specialty stuff like that – expiration date of license and whatnot. Well their licenses expire on their birthday just like a drivers license so you know from their license what month they were born. Texas gives you their year and place of birth there is a well spring of info in those databases. Hard to deal with on the website I want it all in a big fat database so I can check surnames of cousins against surnames of doctors – get me a list of likely suspects then I filter out the ones that went to a particular school graduating a particular year in a particular specialty born a particular month and bingo I got some people to contact.

        • so i purchase the raw data from each state to have all the physician info that is publicly available organized in a way that I, a member of the public can use it to find the doctor that is right for me. Sometimes the states wonder why I need to have the whole thing and I’m like what if I want a woman doctor that went to a certain school who is not too old?

        • Okay-so this is where you are looking for the donor, not looking on behalf of the donor, right?

  5. on the flip side looking for thier kids is harder but it can be done.

  6. I really can’t fathom why someone would keep an adoptee in the dark until they were 42 years old. Being open and honest is the best policy. My aunt adopted her daughter’s child and then the entire family spent the next 18 years pretending that my aunt was actually the biological mother. Not surprisingly, when the child (who was 18 at the time) learned the truth from another relative who “spilled the beans” by mistake, he was hurt and upset about all the years of people lying.

    • I think being honest is much more common these days. Two things contributed to a culture of secrecy in the past. One was fear of stigma–families with adopted kids were stigmatized. They weren’t real or proper families. Great acceptance of these families (think about all the kids books with adoptive families now) have helped ease that. The other thing was that I don’t think people appreciated how hard it would be for an adult child to find out (and they probably underestimated the likelihood that this would happen, too). Thus, not telling was not seen as harmful.

      Both of these things have changed and so have the expectations. We understand the importance of honesty and many states require adoptive parents to have a plan for how they will talk to a child about being adopted. And there’s less reason to hide.

      This is one of the reasons I think it is important not to stigmatize families created with third-party gametes. The more stigmatized these families are, the more tempting it will be for them to hide the truth.

  7. The real, real first family mystery I got to help solve was like that Kenny. I was 12 and my best friend at the time had ancient parents like mine – but even older. We dug thru a box of her dad’s army stuff and found out that he was in viet nam when she was born/conceived. She confronted her mother that night and found out that she was really her grandmother and that one of her older sisters was really her mother. Her sister had her at 13.

  8. This again reminds me of our conversation on ethics. If a person knows there is a chance their offspring will feel slighted that they are preventing them from knowing their paternal relatives, the chance they might be upset should be sufficient reason not to do it. In fact regardless whether they get upset or not the fact that they loose something in order for someone else to get what they want is a sure indicator of unethical behavior.
    But just in case you need an ethical tickler, do a little self check make sure your gambling with your oww chips. If your going to bet away the chance at a relationship with a genetic relative it better be your chance and your relative. After all they always say they don’t know how the kid will feel about not knowing genetic relatives, the only person you know for sure does not care is you. If relationships with genetically related individuals really are meaningless and nothing to be missed they you won’t mind sacrificing a relationship with the donor conceived child you should not be conceiving.

    • I suppose in principle I’d agree with part of what you say. IF you can at no cost to anyone else give something they want or minimize the chances they won’t have it, then maybe ethics demand it. But the world is rarely so simple. There are costs and well as benefits to many actions. As you say, it is like our ethics discussion. Telling someone something might mean divulging someone else’s truth. It’s when there are trade-offs that ethical decisions are hard and that is (in my experience) frequently the case.

      I’m not really sure what position you are advocating here. If a person is willing to provide gametes, are they gambling with their own chips? I suspect you would say not? If a parent is confident they can help and adopted or donor conceived child come to understand their origins, is it permissible to move forward? If the child can have access to the information as an adult, does that matter? And do we ever think about the pain experienced by not adopting/not having children, or is that not part of the calculus at all.

      I know you’ve given me a hard time about listing all those harms and then not going back and that’s actually what I’ve been working on. I do think there’s a balance to be struck. But I’m actually not really sure what that has to do with this particular post. The adoptive parents probably should have disclosed the truth to their daughter. I don’t disagree with you on that. And except perhaps for exceptional circumstances (not thinking of anything concrete or specific here) adoption records should be available to adult adoptees–no argument there. This is a case from another time.

      • I can sacrifice my own genetic relationships because I don’t care about them but I should not sacrifice my kid’s genetic relationships because they are not mine to be gambling with.

        That is just common sense ethical behavior. Gamble your own genetic relationships not someone else’s.

        Waste your own time, not someone else’s. Spend your own money, not someone else’s. Risk your own safety, not someone else’s.

        If a person cannot find a way to solve their own childlessness without sacrificing the child’s ability to know and be known to their genetic relatives from birth on forward, then they should simply remain childless because the alternative is unethical.

        Adopting a child is not unethical so long as you did not cause the child to need to be adopted and your actions do not prevent the child from knowing and being known to their genetic relatives from birth forward. If the identity of their genetic relatives is a mystery through no fault of your own and you did not participate in creating that situation then its not unethical because you were not out there gambling with the kids relatives so that you could have a kid to call your own.

  9. Teaching a person that so and so is not important to them because the are not a parent and therefore there is nothing to miss is the biggest load of hooey. Your preventing them from knowing the identity of the people that made them and that is not your freaking place they are not your relatives to sacrifice it does not matter whether they think of them as parents or family – have you ever missed someone that was not your family? have you ever been hurt by a non family member’s lack of care and consideration for your feelings? Has someone that was not a member of your family ever really stepped on your heart and made you feel like crap? Well there you go. The person that made them probably does not want to give them the time of day and does not care if they are alive or dead. He went out of his way to make offspring for people to raise that he never even met cause he does not give a hot God Damn what happens to them. If he cared so little about the quality of life of his offspring he should not have gone out of his way to make them. Just don’t make a carbon copy of yourself if you are not interested in what happens to them. If you have an accident take care of your business – you created a person that might feel slighted by the fact that all over the world people look after their offspring but yours don’t deserve that. It makes no difference if you teach a person that DNA does not make a family so there is nothing to miss. They don’t have to be labled father to hurt the feelings of their offspring.

    • This is (again) where we disagree. You think there is an absolute truth out there–just like a natural law (think gravity). I do not. I think a great deal of social reality is up for grabs–constructed by the actions of a society.

      For instance, I think we teach children about gender and whether there is fundamental equality or not. You can create a reality for children about what girls are capable of or not capable of. Of course, it’s not only parents who do this as culture plays a role here too.

      In the same way, you can teach a child that the genetic person is their “real parent” or you can teach them that the gamete provider is a person who did something to help you become a parent. And the entire culture shapes a child’s understanding. That is why I sometimes find the inflexible assertion that these genetically linked people are so very very important disturbing–it seems to me it undermines many families in ways that are quite destructive.

      Now I understand that not all children accept everything they are taught and probably no child accepts everything that they are taught. Children have been known to rebel. But that’s a different point it seems to me–whatever message you try to convey to your children you may not succeed. But that might mean that those who would teach their children about the essential nature of genetic linkages will find that their children don’t accept that teaching just as frequently as the reverse.

      The key here for me is that there is no absolute external truth about the importance of genetic linkages in shaping social relationships and human personality. I think your assertions are premised on the notion that there is such a truth–that those relationships really are important. Can you prove that assertion?

      • Are you responding to things I did not say or imply as some sort of game? Or are you not reading what I wrote? Very rarely do you respond to what I said and meant.

        “The key here for me is that there is no absolute external truth about the importance of genetic linkages in shaping social relationships and human personality.”

        See here is what drives me nuts about your responses. That paragraph above would make sense if I had written:

        “I Marilynn, believe that there is an absolute external truth about the importance of genetic linkages in shaping social relationships and human personality.”

        Not only did I not say that, I have no f-ing idea what that would actually mean if I did say it. Would it mean that I think people who are not genetically related cannot have social relationships? Would it mean that I think unrelated people can’t influence the development of one another’s personalities? And what is a genetic linkage anyway? A person? Your talking about human beings that share a common ancestor? I certainly did not say that it was important for people who share a common ancestor to have social relationships and shape each other’s personalities.

        So using your language I’ll ask you this. Genetic linkages exist right? I mean we all have people that are our immediate genetic relatives right?

        So if you don’t think genetic linkages are important then you have every right not to pursue social relationships with your genetic relatives. Mind your own beeswax and don’t interfere with another person’s ability to make that choice for themselves.

        Genetic linkages are valuable for medical reasons even if you don’t have social relationships with those people and it is not something you can get from a blood test or a written medical history it takes ongoing communication over the course of a person’s life. When that communication exists people are better situated in protecting their own health as well as the health of their relatives. Blocking that communication on purpose is just plain stupid and careless. Having it blocked through no fault of your own is just damned unfortunate for you. Why wait 18 years who does that 18 year period serve.

        Genetic linkages are valuable for avoiding romantic relationships that could lead to inbreeding. People generally know who their immediate relatives are unless they were abandoned by one or both of their parents which is, by the way, a crime. The other way a person might not know their immediate relatives is if they were given up for adoption and that aspect of adoption is broken and needs to be fixed. 18 years is too late. Why wait 18 years who does that 18 year waiting period serve?

        I have not envoked natural law or universal truth so please don’t respond as if I did. I have not said diddly squat about social relationships so don’t respond as if I did. I have not said or implied that unrelated people can’t do as good if not better a job of raising children than related people can so don’t respond as if I did.

        I am saying is that if you think genetic relationships are unimportant than you worry about yourself and your genetic relationships because its meddlesome thieving behavior to get between another human being and their relatives. That is true of the gamete donor as well because he is preventing his offspring from knowing and being known to relatives as well. Anyone that has a hand in blocking that knowledge should check their ethics gauge.

        • I am only going to respond to part of what you have said here, not because it isn’t interesting but because I find it hard to track long exchanges. I’m sorry if you do not feel I am responsive to your points generally. I usually do try to pick some of what you’ve said to respond to–perhaps I choose the wrong things.

          Okay–now on to something of substance. Yes, I agree genetic linkages exist. I think they have medical significance, too. No argument on that. The questions I have are two-fold: what is the social and the legal significance of genetic linkage.
          And I suppose I’d say that I do not think thay have fixed meanings in either of these arenas (social or legal). They vary and have varied over time and across cultures. We (collectively, as a culture) can make them more or less important, just as we can make other things (e.g., skin color, sex) more or less important.

          Obviously I could be wrong in assigning you a different view of the importance of genetic linkages and if I have assigned a view to you in error than I apologize and I should surely be more careful. I’m not sure I can find a quote that typifies what I am talking about right now, but I will watch for the next one.

          Another way to get at this might be to ask a question. If we set the medical stuff aside for the moment, can you imagine a world where the source of the gametes made no difference–where it didn’t matter to people? (I can, but that’s likely not a surprise.) I have been thinking (and perhaps wrongly and/or unfairly) that you would say it will always be important.

          • “If we set the medical stuff aside for the moment, can you imagine a world where the source of the gametes made no difference–where it didn’t matter to people? (I can, but that’s likely not a surprise.) I have been thinking (and perhaps wrongly and/or unfairly) that you would say it will always be important.”

            Professor Shapiro your responding to what I actually wrote rather than what you think that I think. If we set the medical stuff aside as you suggest I agree with you completely. In order to set it aside it would have to not exist though. I mean if humans were nothing more than a spring board for life and there was no such thing as inherited physiological traits and information about the health of one was not pertinent information to the health of the other or others who share the same common ancestor say 2 generations back (I’m thinking immediate relatives here) and there was no such thing as congenital birth defects related to reproducing with immediate family members within that 2 generation span – no problem with me saying screw it, genetic relationships are irrellevant to people so who cares if we pursue social relationships with those people.

            Hear that right? If knowing and being known to your immediate relatives did not offer people any advantage over not knowing them then I would not be so adamant that its wrong to keep someone from knowing his or her immediate family.

            But the medical stuff can only be put aside in theory. So in theory I agree with you however it is not practical for reality. People who reproduce blindly without knowing the people they create are operating without all the information people typically have during their reproductive years: they won’t know if they are able to conceive but all the pregnancies end in miscarriage – that is critical information for people to have that is why medical forms say “how many times have you been pregnant and how many children still living” They won’t be tipped off to problems with their own body. That is just one example but on a massive level its just bad for people to be unaware of the results of their actions, whatever their actions may be; its the opposite of evolving when you don’t learn from the outcome of your actions. My objections are grounded more in science and logic than in emotional bonding or social function. I’m not dumb anyone that loves and cares for a child will cause the child to attach to them. I don’t think there is anything magical about genetics in that regard. I do think people need to take responsibility for the outcome of their own actions and use that information to guide their future decisions, that is just plain old responsible behavior. Since not paying attention to the results of our actions has the potential to harm other people I think there is some basis in having laws that require people to to know who their children are and to be answerable to them whether they end up raising them or not – because they kind of owe it to them not to leave them unnecessarily disadvantaged.

            I don’t think genetics is relevant to social bonding other than it generally occurs as a result of people paying attention to the health of their offspring – that involvement results in social bonds. It is the involvement that creates the social bonds. The lack of involvement can lead to feelings of worthlessness by the child – they might wonder why most people are important to those who create them while for some reason they were not. That is something I really think advocates of ART just gloss over because the gamete provider is not a legal parent or did not want to be.

            Can you tell me why advocates of ART recoil from the suggestion that the child may love them but be sad that the person who created them is not interested in them? And it was the people that reproduced that created the child – someone else can make the suggestion but ultimately it was up to the bodies that reproduced to create the child.

            • People often give examples of people who do well without knowing one or both of the parents who created them. I agree its totally possible to live a great life without knowing your relatives and never have a problem with your health.

              Its possible to do well without knowing your relatives but if you don’t have to go through life in a vacuum where you are an island disconnected from information that could be important to you and information about you that could be important to others, why do it?

              Chris Rock said about single motherhood”sure you can probably drive a car with your feet but it doesn’t mean its a good idea”

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