Modern technology has opened up worlds of opportunity previous generations would have never dreamed possible. Whether it’s the ability to connect across the world with the tap of a screen, bank without a checking book or put the car in auto-pilot, there’s no doubt tech has made our lives easier. But does it always make our lives better?
The ethics of technology have become more and more scrutinized. Massive breaches of privacy, misuse of data and election tampering are some hot-button issues in the spotlight. Another issue that is just as important, but hasn’t garnered quite as much attention, is the intersection of DNA tracking sites and adoption.
Search and reunion has been overhauled by information made available through popular websites like 23andMe, as well as other DNA testing kits. This has made locating birth parents and other relatives from a family of origin more possible than ever before.
But, is this a good development? Is it bad? Or is it somewhere in between? As is the case with most things concerning adoption, the truth is in the gray area. Let’s take a look at the positive, and potential negative, impacts of DNA tracking websites on adoption.
Finding Family of Origin
Adoptees in closed-adoption situations are often left with many questions about their family of origin. People form identities based on history. For adoptees, especially adoptees born during the era of closed adoptions, there’s often a missing piece at the center of their puzzle as they try to figure out who they are. Attempting to identify and contact birth parents is the process of search and reunion.
Conversely, some birth parents could initiate the same process. While search and reunions are often initiated by adoptees, a birth mother, father or sibling could decide years later that they want to reconnect with their child.
There are several ways to do this, depending on the state you are in and the state you were born in. Some states, like Kansas, for example, are open-record states. This means a call to the Office of Vital Statistics will give you the original birth certificate, which could have the birth parents’ names on it. Other states make it more difficult to obtain records.
DNA tracking websites have stepped in and completely changed what is possible in search and reunion. Whereas closed-record states used to be a dead-end, it’s now possible to find your family through other means. This has opened the door wide open for adoptees with a desire to understand their birth family’s heritage and birth parents with a desire to reconnect.
The Positives of DNA Websites for Adoptees and Birth Parents
An adoptee’s family of origin is an important part of their identity. This can be difficult to explain, because their adopted family is their “real” family. But still, understanding the family you came from, and the parents who chose adoption for you, can be a building block of a positive self-identity. Search and reunion can help piece this identity together. It also has the opportunity of creating a new, meaningful relationship.
For birth parents, there have been instances when a closed adoption was not their wish. While this rarely happens in modern-day adoption, which places the decision-making power squarely in the hands of the birth parents, adoptions that occurred several decades ago were not always as considerate of the birth parents’ wishes. Unlike in cases where a parent chose to have a closed adoption, older adoptions may have been forced to be closed. In these cases, it’s understandable that a birth parent would want to take advantage of new technology to find out who their child is and how they are doing.
The Potential Pitfalls of Search and Reunion Using DNA Websites
If a DNA website is being used to find a birth parent or adoptee, that almost certainly means it is a closed adoption. When a birth parent decides on a closed adoption, this could be a very intentional decision. As hard as it is to accept, they may not want to be found. The same could be true of adoptees, who could see an uninvited reintroduction to their family of origin as a complicated and unwelcome intrusion.
Even if a birth parent or adoptee chooses to take every step possible to secure complete privacy, they still have no say in whether or not they are located through a DNA tracking service. This is seen by many as a violation of privacy. On a very practical level, it should also be taken into account that a person who has no desire to be found may not react well to being contacted.
Ultimately, this is a question of consent and privacy. When a birth parent or adoptee is found using sites like 23andMe or Ancestry.com, they have no say in the matter. For something as important and life-altering as a reintroduction to a family member, shouldn’t personal consent be a highly valued moral consideration? Or, does the inherent connection to a member from the family of origin override an individual’s right to privacy?
These are the types of questions anyone using a DNA tracking service to locate a family member needs to ask. The answers could be different on a case-by-case basis. It’s gray; not black and white. As technology continues to change society in dramatic ways, these are questions we will need to continually ask, especially when it comes to adoption.
I think with DNA and social media searches, there will be much less secrecy in adoptions. People today that adopt will have to accept the new realities. Those that signed confidentiality agreements years ago may have a wake up call that adoptees and others will eventually find out family secrets from sources other than the family member that was hiding the secret. As to putting people at risk, yes there could be some people who could be more vulnerable now, especially adoptions due to bad circumstances, criminal activity, or abuse. But there could be others where a re-connection could have a happy ending as well.
The New Realities of DNA and Social Media Searches in Adoption and other situations:
1) DNA Searches may result in the following:
* Adoptees may find the names and/or locate Birth Parents, Siblings, and other “hidden” family members, even when an adoption is “closed”
2) DNA Searches may also reveal other “surprises” such as:
* Children from their parents previous marriages and/or out of wedlock births
* Children who were switched at birth
* Severed branches of family
* Separated Siblings
* Children who were separated by the foster care system
* Family members who were criminals or in jail who have DNA profiles registered
* Parents of internationally adopted children
* Relatives of Persons who were given up at birth and had their names changed
* Relative connections of those who lived in institutionalization
* Persons given new identities in the witness protection program
* And others
3) Do not expect that you will be able to cut off contact forever via an adoption agreement. Many forms of electronic contact such as email, social media, and search engines do not go through this system.
4) Through social media, it is possible for adopted minors who find and/or remember their birth parents or siblings names to make contact without going through child protective services. As such, do not expect 100% cut-off of contact till adulthood, even if you close the adoption. When contact is made through this means, not every case will be reported or punished, it just isn’t possible for social services to find out in every case, especially if a teenager does it in secret.
5) When making contact via DNA search or social media search, research the persons situation before making contact. Keep in mind that it is possible that some people are not nice or have a risky lifestyle, or may be criminals, etc so one has to be careful.
6) Accept when family secrets gets revealed through DNA or social media searches, not everyone in the family will be happy the secret is no longer a secret. This can lead to animosity sometimes for a while.
7) Never expect that all family secrets will be hidden forever in these days of technology and ease of searching.
I am a birth mom who closed an adoption in 1970. I wanted it closed for my child’s and my sake. I never wanted her to find me. 23 and me responded to her father’s adult nephew telling him that he had a 1st cousin which meant one of his aunts or uncles had an unknown child. He contacted my son and told him he had a sister. It destroyed my family! Do I have legal recourse against 23 and me?
Do I have legal recourse against the nephew who violated my privacy?
Hi, Nancy — We are not legal experts, so we cannot offer guidance for this situation. We encourage you to reach out to a local attorney for legal guidance on this subject.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer here, so this is NOT considered legal advice
What is probably best here is to accept the new reality of what the DNA search revealed, even if it was originally secret in 1970. The contract for secrecy you signed 36 years long before 23andme was founded and was likely with either the courts and/or adoption agency. 23andme being a private company founded in 2006 is not a party to that agreement.
The other interesting question to explore is where 23andme got its family data from and whether any breach of privacy was committed. My theory is that 23andme uses commercial sources of data, public genome projects including the Human Genome Project, and other publicly available data sources along with making their own database other 23andme users who did DNA searches and they compare the mitochondria and other DNA aspects that determine the mother, father, etc and if one of those is the same they determine who are most likely siblings using pattern matching of what patterns of DNA get transmitted from mother and father.
I doubt any of this data that 23andme used to reveal your family secret came from the courts or the adoption agency you signed your original contract with in 1970. Next, even if it did, many states allow adoptees access to their original birth records now at age 18. If you really think 23andme got their data from an illegal source or breached your original confidentiality agreement you will need to prove it and I suspect the proof will be difficult. I think the best option is probably to accept reality that there is no longer a cover up of the truth and the family secret is no longer a secret proven by new technology that was not available in 1970, and move on. If it caused emotional or safety issues restraining orders can be obtained. But in reality we have new technologies that created data sources other than the ones that were sealed proved accurate at determining what was once a “secret” between other parties.
As sad or happy as is, the reality is that old methods of keeping family secrets secret from years or decades ago may not stand up to new technology making the secrecy method obsolete. Society must adapt to new realities and many experts are saying that truly closed adoptions are becoming obsolete due to DNA searches and social media searches and it is very difficult for the courts to control information completely and once it is in someone’s long term memory, there is no turning back. This is the reality of the information age.
I had a closed adoption in the 80s. A family member raped me and got me pregnant. I do not believe in abortion, so gave the child up for adoption.
She later found me due to one of the DNA testing sites. They told her that she was born out of incest and directed her to me via my son I have a problem with.
There are reasons that people have closed adoptions, there were laws that protected the mothers in these adoptions.
Now I have an angry 38 yr old stranger along with an extended family to deal with, that should not have happened. I feel these companies are not taking responsibility for their actions in these cases.