Spit Kits, Sperm Donors, and the End of Family Secrets

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Libby Copeland: There are a few ways of looking at it. Right now, we’re living in a culture of transparency and authenticity. But 60 years ago, if you were conceived by a sperm donor, it was likely kept a secret because that was the culture at the time. If you find out the truth through DNA testing, you’re really colliding with a different culture, a different way of thinking about how much children should know about their own genetic identity. Which often forces people to go back and rethink their childhood.

But another way of thinking about it is how DNA testing forces questions on people they didn’t even know they were asking. They thought they were going to find out how Irish they were. Or, you know, whether one grandparent really was Italian or not. But in a not insignificant minority of cases, people find out something much more profound and immediate. And once you know, you can’t take it back.

Do you think these companies that offer DNA testing offer adequate warnings to people about these kinds of “DNA surprises”?

I think they could be much more prominent, for sure. But what I also found was that, even when people are warned about the statistical likelihood they’ll find out something unexpected, they often don’t think it will happen to them. Increasingly though, I think the whole question is actually becoming moot. More than 30 million people have tested; it’s probably more like 40 million. With these kinds of numbers, people are going to be drawn in, whether or not you choose to test. So you may find surprises you’ll have to reconcile with that come to you not in the form of your own DNA test results, but through a cousin or a sibling—or even a relative you didn’t know you had.

Your reporting on this really shows how a relatively small group of people can make decisions that change the course of history, not just for their families, but for everyone. Do you get the sense that these seekers feel the weight of that responsibility?

Yes, I think some of them do. But what’s complicated about this is people are really on their own to figure all this stuff out. They’re essentially having to act as their own bioethicists because there’s so little formal support. There aren’t any official guidelines about how, or if you even should, contact relatives that turn up through DNA testing. Grassroots, online communities exist where people can share wisdom. But culturally, we’re all just in this together making it up as we go.

Do you see that changing anytime soon?

It’s hard to see how you make rules around this stuff or what exactly they would look like. It would be nice to at least have some best practices for people to lean on. But what I think we really need much more of is research on DNA testing as a sociological phenomenon.

How common is it for people to get a significant, unexpected DNA surprise? What does it look like? How does it play out? We need more data. And I think it will come. I really think that in a few decades people will be studying this moment in sociology classes at universities, because this is the moment when everything changed. It’s at this moment that technology flipped the script for how we talk about how families are made.

Prior to reporting and writing this book, you had done DNA testing with your family. Did your feelings about that decision change at all after spending so much time deep in this world?

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