I know I’ve been inattentive of late. Believe it or not, my semester just started and getting classes up and running has taken all my time. Been meaning to get back here, but I’m sure many of you know how that goes.
But then I picked up my morning paper (The Seattle Times) which had this article–originally from the New York Times and I’ve linked to that as well. In a way it tells us nothing we didn’t already know–or could have known if we’d thought about it. The easy and affordability of DNA testing makes it possible for adoptees to find their birth parents. (I’m using the term birth parents here because I think it has a pretty well-established meaning, but as earlier posts demonstrate, I’m wary of the sloppiness of language and this term does make me a little uneasy. But I’ll unpack that another time.) Given enough time and enough testing, remaining anonymous simply isn’t possible anymore–whether for birth parents or for gamete providers. (Of course, the enough time/enough testing qualification suggests there may be some significant barriers.)
But even though I might say I knew all this, I think the article is interesting. That’s really because the statement above about what DNA testing makes possible, while true, is not anchored in any context. The article is anchored in a very specific context. And context matters a great deal to me.
The context here is Korean adoptees. Many children were adopted out of Korea over the decades, into homes throughout the world, but often in Western Europe or the US. Many of these children were adopted into white families and so have always known they were adopted. Surely many if not all of these children wondered about their families of origin. But for many years that must have seemed a nearly impossible question. South Korean law blocks the release of information to the adopted child without the birth parents consent. And since, as the article recounts, there is stigma surrounding placing a child for adoption, that consent seems to be but infrequently forthcoming. It’s not an unfamiliar story, in a general way, but it is one that is shaped in specific ways by cultural norms.
But now there’s DNA testing. Now it’s not a perfect answer, because the same social forces that prevent birth parents from granting access to birth records may prevent them from providing DNA for testing. This does seem to be the case–the number of parents providing samples is far lower than the number of children. But the arrival of DNA testing is still important. There may well be people more willing to give a cheek swab than they are to reopen their connection to an adoption agency. And beyond that, as DNA testing becomes more prevalent for more reasons, it may be that more DNA samples are available for matching. (Yes, there are privacy issues here.)
DNA testing can also help even if parents themselves are not tested. There’s a great blog on donor conception called “Olivia’s View.” She recently wrote about DNA testing, albeit in a different context. Even if a parent does not provide a sample–even if a parent has died–matches may be made through siblings or other children. It’s not that DNA testing will provide the immediate answer to all the questions Korean adoptees must have, but it is an avenue that holds a lot of promise.
I wonder, too, if the availability of DNA testing will change the shape of the debate. Could it help undermine the social forces that make birth parents less willing to identify themselves? I think perhaps it might. I suppose we’ll see.