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With DNA Testing, Family Secrets Might Not Be So Easy to Keep

by Leah Campbell

Kambree M.* had always known she was adopted, but for most of her life the idea of seeking out her biological family wasn’t a deep desire of hers. Of course she was curious, but she’d never really felt the need to go looking.

Then one day, a co-worker started talking about her experience using AncestryDNA, a site that uses your DNA to find biological relatives, and something just clicked for Kambree. “Decisions are difficult for me,” the Utah resident tells Mom.me. “But this one was easy. It sounds hokey, but I felt led to do it.”

She sent the test off in early May of this year. And within roughly two months, she was communicating with her biological family.

What Kambree, 39, couldn’t have known was that just a year earlier, her biological father had been contacted by another daughter; while he’d known about Kambree, the other daughter, Amy H.*, was a surprise to him.

Amy, 36, had spent nearly 15 years searching for her biological father, but all she’d ever had was a name. Raised by her biological mother, she eventually found him because of Facebook. A DNA test confirmed paternity. When her father called to tell her about Kambree finding him, she went into “FBI mode,” Amy tells Mom.me. “I spent the next 16 hours or so collecting every bit of information I could dig up about Kambree.”

The newly connected sisters (Amy, left, and Kambree, right) found out they lived just 10 minutes apart in Utah, and they’ve spent the last four months forming a bond neither could have anticipated. Earlier this year, they even took their first official “sisters trip” to Washington, where they were able to meet their entire extended family on their father’s side at their grandfather’s 90th birthday party (pictured at top).

To hear them tell it, the way they were connected has been nothing short of magical. But it’s been harder for others in their lives to adjust. Their father’s wife was reeling, according to Amy. “She didn’t know about me before I found them, either,” Amy explains. “I’m sure after finding out about Kambree, she was wondering how many other kids he had out there!” And Kambree explains that her relationship with the sister she grew up with has been strained as well. “She’s been distant. Since finding my half-sister Amy, I think she feels replaced. This is far from my truth, but it feels like her perception of the truth.”

It’s a truth plenty of families that were built through adoption and egg or sperm donation are having to come to terms with in recent years. Sites like Ancestry.com, 23&Me and MyHeritage originated for people with an interest in genealogy. But more and more children of adoption and egg or sperm donation are turning to these sites to find their biological families.

The unintended consequence is, in some cases, that old family secrets are being revealed.

For many years, adoptions were kept closed and children were never told. This isn’t the case nearly as often today, but there are still families who avoid revealing the truth about where their children came from. This is even more common with egg and sperm donation. Families think that because they carried the pregnancy, no one needs to know about the differing genetic material.

Problems arise when these kids grow up and sign up for these services; it can quickly become obvious that they don’t share genes with the people who raised them. And, when these secrets are revealed in adulthood, the consequences can often be traumatic.

The other problem can occur when the biological family doesn’t want to be found. Mom.me spoke to a former egg donor who expressed a deep desire to never be sought out. Julia* (name changed to protect her privacy) has donated her eggs to six different families, but as she explained to Mom.me, “I never would have donated without anonymity. I do not want to be found by any potential egg donor children. Theoretically, if I were found, I would ask any donor children that I be left alone. If I was still pursued after that, I would file a restraining order for stalking.”

As a former egg donor myself (and one who would personally love to be found), I might have made the mistake of assuming Julia was the rare donor who feels this way. But in a recent poll on a private egg donor group I’m a part of, the results were surprising to me. Of 199 donors polled, 129 (65 percent) said they’d be ecstatic to have that connection, 52 (26 percent) said they felt mostly neutral but would be OK answering questions and 18 (9 percent) said they would be freaked out and never want to be found.

The poll was not anonymous, and it was suggested that the numbers might have been higher for those who don’t want to be contacted if it had been. When you start looking into stories about adoptees who have sought out their biological parents, it would seem there are a fair amount who never wanted to be found in that world, as well.

In fact, although Kambree has also found her biological mom, the two have never met in person and communicate only through texts.

"I'm in Utah and she's in Idaho," Kambree tells Mom.me. "It's not a stretch to assume that a meeting could happen if she wanted it to. It doesn't feel like she does. I haven't even talked to her on the phone."

When these kids grow up and sign up for these sites, it can quickly become obvious that they don’t share genes with the people who raised them.

Ashley Gonzalez is a volunteer and self-described "genetic genealogist" who uses DNA testing and online databases to help people who are seeking their biological families. “I always walk a fine line while doing this,” she explains to Mom.me. “Does the adoptees’ right to know where they came from trump the bio parents’ right to privacy? It’s an ethics question.”

Plenty would argue that the children born into these circumstances didn’t agree to any kind of anonymity and that all people have a right to know where they come from. But, in defending her desire to never be contacted, regardless of how those children may feel, Julia explains, “I am 100 percent not responsible for any children who could have been created from my cells. Therefore, I do not consider their rights as a personal responsibility or interest of mine. That is their parents’ job to deal with.”

It could be argued that complete anonymity is no longer an ethical promise to make to donors and birth parents, however. Because as the technology expands, guaranteeing a person will never be found might no longer be realistic.

The truth is, any person in your family line could sign up for one of the sites and connections could be made. In Julia’s case, only two people in her real life know she donated. But as DNA testing advances and more people sign up in the future, that might not be a secret she’s able to keep, either.

For people like Amy and Kambree, the availability of this testing and the sites that help to make these connections has proven to be invaluable. They found each other and an extended family neither knew she had. Speaking to both of them, it’s clearly been a beautiful thing.

However, not everyone who is finding out about their biological roots this way feels the same, and as old family secrets are being revealed, the potential consequences of these sites are also becoming clearer.

As a former egg donor, as well as a mother through adoption, I could never imagine keeping those secrets from my daughter. Not only because we don’t look anything like each other, but also because I do believe that honesty is important and that making those truths a part of a child’s narrative (something they’ve just always known) makes processing those truths so much easier for them.

So, maybe it’s not a bad thing that this technology is forcing others to question the value of keeping these secrets.

But for every adoptee like Kambree, who was embraced by the biological family she found, there are others who were turned away. And even more still who never knew they weren’t biologically connected to the parents who raised them.

For those families, these sites could mean there is a lot of explaining to do.

Update: Kambree contacted mom.me after the story was published and shared this, "I was able to meet my bio mom the day after Thanksgiving. It was at her suggestion. She was traveling through Utah to take a vacation and it was a bit of a spur of the moment meeting, as in she called me 3 hours before she wanted to meet.

But it was lovely. She was lovely. It was a wonderful experience and it helped me to reflect on everyone's individual need to process and reflect on birth family reunions and to process their emotional reaction to it. It takes longer for some people. It's important to give people time."

*Last names abbreviated for privacy

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