DNA and the unexpected family reunions

reading time 4 minutes

Would you or wouldn’t you? With DNA tests cheaply priced and readily available via the likes of 23andMe, adopted or donor-conceived people can search for the truth behind their ancestry.

But as this recent story in The Wired demonstrates, it can lead to unorthodox reunions…

Take the story of Jeff Johnson. As a 21-year-old in 1974, he donated sperm to a clinic in New York. The clinic asked for the basics—height, weight, eye colour, race, religion and education, and a questionnaire on his health.

The donation was later sent to a clinic in Michigan. In 1977, British biochemist Frederick Sanger developed a method for rapid DNA sequencing. This, however, was before the internet was born and scientists finished mapping the human genome.

New consequences for old decisions

Technology, the Wired article states “has a way of creating new consequences for old decisions”, and today some 30 million people are thought to have taken consumer DNA tests. Experts call this the ‘tipping point’. People conceived through insemination can match with half-siblings and trace them, and more of them are joining forces to demand regulation of the fertility industry.

In a delegation marking the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, donors spoke of numerous half-siblings (75 in one case) or discovering too late about a genetic predisposition to bowel cancer.

In Michigan in 1975, a woman called Ann visited her local fertility clinic when she and her husband failed to conceive thanks to her husband’s severe case of mumps in his childhood. Her husband allowed her to proceed on the proviso she never told anyone while he was alive.

They chose a donor whose listing suggested he was physically similar to Norman. After a few failed attempts, Ann became pregnant and gave birth to a girl called Denise.

Unintentional consanguinity

Ann and her husband later divorced but the secret weighed on her. What would happen when her daughter started dating—what if the donor family was in the area? While the risk of unintentional consanguinity (relatives hooking up) is low, it is a real fear for those conceived using anonymous sperm donation. A TV show in 1990 featured one episode with a donor rumoured to have fathered 500 children.

Ann’s husband died in 2010, by which time Denise was 32. Ann told her daughter the truth. She gave her the receipt from the clinic and a clipping from the Donor Sibling Registry, which had been set up in 2000 to connect offspring to their donors and siblings. Denise, however, wasn’t interested.

But disclosure programmes had started and the FDA brought in a requirement for sperm and egg banks to test for communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Norse heritage

When a young man decided to test his own DNA using a kit, his results appeared to show nothing unusual. His father had spoken of a Norse heritage, which seemed to be confirmed by the test.

But seven years after he’d taken the test the young man received an email message from someone claiming to be his biological father. He explored the 23andMe’s DNA Relatives tab and found he shared 50 percent DNA with Jeff Johnson, with the word ‘father’ under relationship.

The young man checked with his mother and father, who said the message must be a mistake. 23andMe claimed such a mistake was unlikely.

The man ordered DNA kits for his sons to check if they matched Jeff Johnson. As the results were likely to take a month, he asked Jeff for his genome. He fed both into a statistical software programme. The results came back—father and son.

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The young man found the Donor Sibling Registry, where he was able to access support for this particular predicament.

Such incidents have become common; so much so they are called non-parental events, or NPEs, and they require emotional processing. When the man returned to his family, he found out that his parents tried to conceive naturally and when this hadn’t happened, his mother opted for donor insemination, but they carried on trying themselves. They’d always chosen to believe their son was theirs.

His parents told him they didn’t want him to tell anyone while they were still alive. But three years later, Denise found the man on the Geographic Project’s website where she had uploaded her own DNA results some years earlier. The man rang her back–her half-brother. They discovered another half-sister. Jeff and his offspring began to meet and swap stories, although not all donors share the curiosity to find out about their biological offspring.

 

Read the full story in The Wired.