DNA testing and the changes it brings

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.


12 responses to “DNA testing and the changes it brings

  1. My parents donor is my father

    You might be interested in this recent recording of a much older ‘donor’ conceived man speak a bit to this:
    William Cordray discussion of tracking down his sperm donor, the donor’s ancestors as well as other progeny at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City (starting at 5:42)
    The first part of Bill’s speech: “I’ll be talking today about my experience with ‘donor insemination’. I want to make it clear from the start that this is a process that is not through any kind of sexual intercourse at all. Because some people ask if the doctor does it does that mean he had sex with the patient? No.
    Donor insemination is a term that I will shorten to DI, to save my speaking voice.
    I will not use the common term ‘anonymous donor’ and will replace that with unknown father. Since many of us claim the right to define what family means, I chose to call the man whose sperm was used to help create me, my father. I use the more personal loving term, dad, for the man who raised me, taught me how to tie my shoes and took me camping. I refuse to use the medicalized terminology of reproductive medicine reducing my father to a term like ‘sperm donor’ does not convey the full meaning he has for me.
    Whenever I hear people talk about DI, they often praise this method of giving infertile people the chance to have children. Indeed it is sad to suffer from infertility, have no means to have children for a woman who has an infertile husband or no husband at all. Becoming a mother is a part of completing their sense of identity. Many women prefer DI to adoption because they want to be pregnant, they want to give birth to their own child. A baby that carries their genes and grows into someone like themselves. Reproductive liberty means having your identity fulfilled as a mother. Gynecologists and clinics make this possible. Of course it comes at the cost of raising children that have emerging traits that are unfamiliar because they came from a stranger. Reproductive liberty also must mean reproductive justice. My mother’s right to have me as a baby with half her genes must be in concert with, not opposing, might right to know my whole genetic history.”
    Listen to the full speech here:

  2. My parents donor is my father

    And Wendy Kramer (of the Donor Sibling Registry) recent post to Huffington Post:

  3. I’ve been saying for a while that it’s become almost impossible today for parents to keep their child’s donor conception or adoption secret. With the Internet and DNA testing one way or another a child will find out. Better be honest up front rather than there be ugly fallout.

    Anonymity in third party reproduction really doesn’t exist so you might as well make all donations open. I think it could lead to a better quality of donors though it may lower the quantity of donors.

    • I think you are right that anonymity is an increasingly impossible promise. This raises transitional issues–there are people who were promised or assumed anonymity and their expectations–on which lives were built–will be undone. But in the long run, it’s something one just has to acknowledge. We probably ought to stop promising.

      This leads to the question you raise–what will be different if we stop promising anonymity. Perhaps a lot. And perhaps it will be better. Worth thinking through. For instance, would a man provide sperm for dozens of women if he thought there was no anonymity? I suppose some men always will, but I suspect that many would not.

  4. I cried at the end of your linked article; the father who was unable to raise his own sons never gave up hope of finding them some day and he’s wracked with a sense of loss. Tragic.

    The one thing about putting your dna in one of these databases referenced in the article is that your chances of finding your family actually increase with the passage of time as more and more people join the website one could well be their child/parent/sibling etc.

    I really like that for at least part of this post you just used the word parents to describe people who are parents. You did it several times without the degrading qualifier birth or biological. It’s really demeaning and derogatory to put any qualifier or prefix on the title of parent for a person who has offspring and does fit the primary description of the word parent in any medical text book or dictionary in any language. You touch on the use of the term birth parent briefly at the beginning of the article and I have recently come round to a new way of thinking on the topic. Everyone is so sensitive to the feelings of people who raise other people’s kids because it seems only fair to grant unqualified parenthood to people who do the work of raising someone else’s child but that’s malarkey – it’s just not true that people cease to be unqualified parents just because they don’t raise their offspring. They really do still fall under the umbrella term parent just for having offspring and it’s quite rude to refuse to refer to a person as something they truly are per the letter and rule of the language we speak simply because it offends our sensibilities. It’s popular to say that any man can have offspring but it takes being there day in and out to be a father but that is technically a lie and is fully unsupported by anything other than opinion and sentiment that diverges from fact. I used to say that having offspring makes a man a father but It takes being there to be a good father – but the article you link to makes the point that wanting to be there and being unable to makes a man with offspring a sad and lonely father. Who is the man who raised his sons? Their adoptive father – it’s accurate and it tells the story he was there and the father was not. That is fact. It does not tell us the background of a father who has never stopped searching. To call him a birth father is like EX father like his fatherhood ended when the kids were adopted and that is a lie.

    • It’s certainly limiting to add a modifier to “parent.” I suppose in some contexts it is demeaning. But you know I think that at time the modifiers are the only way to gain clarity about who means what. If I just say “she’s a parent” readers might not know what I mean–whether I mean an adoptive parent or a genetic parent or a birth parent. I’m not sure it is demeaning to fully define terms.

      But I know, too, that this sits atop a lot we disagree about, so it isn’t so simple.

    • On the other hand those who are sensitive to defining family as being made up of non biological relatives in addition to biological relatives seem to take offense to calling non biological relatives as being family. The sensitivity goes both ways. In today’s evolving and complex world families are diverse more so than in the past. It will be easier if those who have a traditional definition of family adapt to the world today rather than fighting it.

  5. Well what do you think about the man in the article who was searching for his three children for years and years? Is he their father? He meets the requirements of being a father technically according to the formal Websters definition of father and it would be inaccurate for someone to say he had no children of his own or that the kids he was looking for were some other man’s children. We could say that the law no longer views him as having parental authority because he relinquished his kids for adoption or we could say that his children don’t think of him as their father because they don’t know him or because they are mad at him or because they think of another man as their father – but not ‘thinking’ of him as their father is in and of itself an admission that he is in fact their father.

    Would you ‘think of him’ as their father given the circumstances?

    • I don’t quite know what you mean when you ask what I “think about” him. It seems to me you want to know what I call him. I would not call him a father without using a modifier. Biological father? Maybe birth father, although I think that’s a little odd. Genetic father? The reason I’d insist on a modifier is that when I use the unmodified term I mean the person who played the social/psychological role, the person who the child thinks of as father. In these cases that spot is taken by the adoptive father. For me, referring to this man simply as “father” would be confusing–you might think he had some ongoing involvement in the child’s life.

      All that said, I also recognize that the children are totally free to call him whatever they want–and if they think of him as a father, that’s fine. I’ll even adopt their practice in some contexts–as long as it is clear. If the children call both men “father” that’s fine with me, too. And he may think of himself as “father”–although if there are other children he actually raised I wonder if there would be some distinction in his use of language to mark the difference between a child you had a life-long relationship with and a child you did not.

      • You may mean ‘man with ongoing involvement in child’s life’ when you say ‘father’ but that is your own informal definition of that word not formally adopted by the English language. You could also spell the word ‘futher’ and say that it is how you prefer to spell it. Technically the man in the arrival does fit the primary definition of father and so it’s true to say he is a father even if you yourself lean toward a preference for secondary definitions related to care giving. It might be true to call a care giver father according to a secondary definition but it’s an outright bald face lie to say a man is not the father of his own offspring. Truth is very black and white, perception is gray

  6. Can a person actually pass in and out of being a parent based on how their child feels or how they feel about themselves prevent what the law says? Can an adult erase his parents parenthood by not thinking of them as his parents despite raising him? Does choosing to be adult adoptexd really make the prospective adopter his parent? What happens to reality? Is who he is in relation to others up to him when the relationship is not contractility mo

    • I don’t want to make it sound easy, but I think I should probably say “yes.” If you act like a parent for long enough–shoulder all the responsibilities, do the work–then the child will likely think of you as a parent. And you might well. And so you become a parent, in my view. (There are cases where men come along while a woman is pregnant–clearly by another man–and step in. If they act the part for long enough, then the part is no longer acting. It’s rather like The Velveteen Rabbit–they become real.)

      The other side is admittedly harder for me. But it does seem to me that I might want to say if you abandon a child for long enough you should just lose your rights–including the right to call yourself parent. You might still be an important player, you might still have financial obligations. But I can see saying that you no longer have the right to call yourself “parent.” Of course, we do accomplish this via formal proceedings–abandonment is a basis for termination of parental rights.

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