Before the now-adult child tests
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
— Edward Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyám
There is one unavoidable essential truth of DNA testing: the truth will out.
Time and again, we are reminded by the genetic genealogy community that:
DNA test results, like traditional genealogical records, can reveal unexpected information about the tester and his or her immediate family, ancestors, and/or descendants. For example, both DNA test results and traditional genealogical records can reveal misattributed parentage, adoption, health information, previously unknown family members, and errors in well-researched family trees, among other unexpected outcomes.1
The testing companies tell us the same thing. For example, 23andMe warns that:
In the process of learning about your genetic makeup and comparing that with others, you may discover relatives who were previously unknown to you, these could be relatives you’ve been looking for and are excited to connect with or relatives (sometimes even close relatives like brothers or sisters) that you didn’t know existed. Your genetic profile can also lead you to other, distant branches of your family tree.
In a similar way, genetic information can also reveal that someone you thought you were related to is not your biological relative. This happens most frequently in the case of paternity, where someone learns that their biological father is not who they thought it was.2
Genetic genealogist and blogger Kelly Wheaton says it as simply as possible: “It cannot be repeated enough, anyone considering a DNA test should be prepared for an unexpected result. If you aren’t ready for the TRUTH, do NOT take a DNA test! DNA simply reports what is there and doesn’t care what we think or want.”3
But here’s the catch: these warnings are directed to the person thinking about taking a DNA test. And sometimes that person doesn’t have a clue that there’s a secret hiding in his genes. That he is adopted, for example. Or — as was the case for a reader this week — that the now-adult child was donor-conceived.
The parent who contacted The Legal Genealogist this week after an adult child decided to take a DNA test “for fun” was in agony. Angry and terrified. Concerned for what the test the now-adult child had taken would say about the family the parent had created. Wanting the law to step in and prevent these tests from being offered, to protect the secrets the parent had chosen to keep all these years.4
The reality is, that’s not going to happen. These tests are perfectly legal, and — as sympathetic as I might be for the very real, almost tangible fears of this parent — the desire of a small cadre of parents who have kept secrets from their children to continue to keep them will not change that. Every individual has a right to his or her own information, and DNA tests give us a way to get to data hidden in our genes.
But if the now-adult children of non-disclosing parents choose to test, the simple fact is: the truth will out.
An adopted child will not be matched to other members of his or her adopted parents’ families the child expects to match. Cousins or aunts and uncles who “should” match won’t. A donor-conceived child will not be matched to other members of the non-biological parent’s family. A male child who chooses the YDNA test expecting to be matched to Smiths will certainly know something is awry if the test shows he is matched only to others with the surname Johnson.
These are the unexpected results that the genetic genealogy community and the testing companies warn about. The adopted child will likely find matches to relatives of his or biological parents already in the databases. The child of a sperm donor will be matched to relatives of the sperm donor if they have tested; the child of an egg donor will be matched to relatives of the egg donor.
In short: the truth will out.
I’m not going to get into a debate over whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that some parents chose not to disclose to their children the reality of their origins. The reality is, as the poet Edward Fitzgerald notes, the moving finger has already written that part of the families’ story.
And whatever the parents’ reasons were, once the now-adult child has chosen to test, the truth will out.
There are some very good reasons why the truth should out. The most basic reason is health history. Every adult needs to know as much of his or her own health history as possible, and an adult child from whom the truth has been concealed may not even know that the health history being provided to the doctors is wrong.
And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a child who is adopted or donor-conceived may find himself or herself attracted to someone who turns out to be far more closely related biologically than either of them has any reason to know.
I’m also not going to get into a debate or even a discussion as to how any family should or might disclose the truth to a child now. I’m a genealogist with a law degree, not a psychologist or family counselor. I can only urge any family facing this issue to seek counselling and whatever help the psychology folks can provide in navigating these difficult waters.
And I’m not going to get into a debate over the legality of DNA testing. Millions of people have chosen to test, for reasons ranging from idle curiosity to a burning desire to connect with kin, and the rights of adults to their own information will not be abridged because a small minority is afraid of what the tests will show.
But I will continue to sound the alarum5 for everyone who is even thinking about DNA testing. And for every parent who has been keeping a secret from his or her now-adult child.
Be aware, if you test, if that now-adult child tests, if the now-adult child of your adopted or donor-conceived child tests, that the truth will out.
- ¶ 12, Genetic Genealogy Standards (http://www.geneticgenealogystandards.com/ : accessed 5 Aug 2017). ↩
- “What unexpected things might I learn from 23andMe?,” Customer Care: Before You Buy, 23andMe (https://customercare.23andme.com/ : accessed 5 Aug 2017). ↩
- Kelly Wheaton, “Dealing With the Unexpected Result,” Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy, Wheaton Surname Resources (https://sites.google.com/site/wheatonsurname/home : accessed 5 Aug 2017). ↩
- Out of respect for the privacy of both parent and child, I will not disclose any details of identity here — not even gender of parent or child. ↩
- Not a typo. Look it up! ↩