I’ve written a post like this before, but it was a long time ago. Both because there are different readers and because I’m sure I change over time, I thought I’d have another go at it. I’ve been thinking about this because of the last post and also because of the movie “Stories We Tell.” which I wrote about a little while back.
DNA can tell us about things that happened in the past. For instance, in the last post, DNA testing revealed that someone switch sperm samples at that Utah clinic. DNA cannot tell us who did that or why they did it, though we can certainly speculate and have suspicions. In “Stories We Tell,” DNA testing reveals that the wife had an affair with a man who is in fact the genetic father of Sarah Polley (the filmmaker).
It may seem obvious to say this, but DNA testing can also help us find/identify those who are genetically related to us. They help us understand our genetic lineage. Again, you can see this in both stories. The mother of the sperm donor is the genetic grandmother of the child in the UT clinic case. The man the wife had an affair with is the genetic father of Sarah Polley. Knowing these people–or at least having the opportunity to know them–can be uniquely valuable. Whether you think about learning medical and family history or whether you think about discovering a new network of people in which you can locate yourself, there’s obviously a lot to learn.
I don’t want to understate the importance of the information one can learn from DNA testing, nor do I want to minimize the pain it can cause. In both of the instances I’m thinking about here the information is both important to those involved and a cause of pain.
But there is (in my view, and I know I will part company with some of you here) a limit to what DNA can tell us. DNA cannot tell us which people raised us and which people love us. DNA cannot tell us anything about who we have profound psychological attachments to. In both the cases here, those relationships were forged with the men who raised the children concerned over many many years. They are no less substantial the day after the DNA test comes back then they were before.
So does DNA–or really knowledge about DNA–change those relationships? I think the answer is that it can but, in the best of cases, it doesn’t. Not fundamentally, anyway. It’s true that the relationships were built on a false assumption was that the men raising the children were also the genetic fathers. But h0wever important that assumption was at the beginning of the relationships, it is clearly not crucial by the time its falsity is discovered. In both cases the relationships endure–the men remain fathers to their children, the children remain the father’s child.
This is to me what makes both stories bearable and perhaps in the end even uplifting. When the father in the UT case says he is glad that he learned this information in his lifetime so that his daughter knows that he loves her just the same–DNA or no–it’s a wonderful thing (to me, anyway.)
It’s not hard to imagine cases with a contrary outcome–cases where the man rejects the child or the child rejects the man. I’ve read about them. That, it seems to me, vastly amplifies the cost of the genetic information and is the stuff of tragedy.
I suppose if I were to answer my own question I would say that DNA dictates as much as we let it. And (from my point of view) it’s best not to let it dictate too much.