DNA Testing and Adoption Search:
Separate Issues?

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC, LADAC, MAC

     At first glance, an adult adoptee searching for birth family and a non-adopted person pursuing DNA testing for whatever reason might seem to be completely separate issues, with the exception of trying to test for genetically inherited diseases. However, there are really many similarities.
     DNA testing is useful for many reasons other than testing for genetic (not always inherited) conditions. Some such conditions occur due to a mutation in that individual, not in a gene that’s been passed down from previous mutations. Not all conditions have yet been identified with a particular chromosome or gene, either. DNA testing continues to evolve, and understanding all the details is beyond most lay people’s training or desire, but the particular types of DNA tests one might be interested in can be explained. Aside from testing for diseases or abnormalities, one might want a test for group traits, for something as large and non-specific as ancestral migration (when one’s haplogroup first left Africa and where they went), for more recent ethnic and genetic group affiliation, tests for genetic relatedness (such as a possible birth parent and possible offspring both being tested to make sure they are parent and child), or two other people who suspect they are related and want to know for sure and how closely they might be related. There are also issues being acknowledged now related to persons conceived through donor sperm and/or eggs. For some tests, the male “Y” line or the female mitochondrial line is tested, while other tests may look at chromosomes, at certain genes, or may test “markers” which are located in other parts of the cell. In general, the more markers tested, the more specific the results can be, particularly in terms of geographical background and migration, and the more markers tested, the higher the cost of the test. Some companies may overstate the reliability of their test results, so one might check with more than one company before committing. Testing is not magic, and does not involve being able to tell you that if you have blue eyes, your ancestors were from a particular country, or that you will definitely get a particular disease in the future. Test results are generally based on probability, according to how closely it matches with tests from previous individuals. In other words, the more people tested from a given group, the more reliable the results are for the next person tested.
     For an adoptee who has searched for birth family but does not have names, or has about given up on finding a particular person, can DNA be of any help? It could help a person at least know their various ethnic and genetic backgrounds, for instance. That might lead to searching in a particular region of the country for relatives, or within a certain religious community. There are surname projects that are ongoing. Other tests might be helpful in predicting vulnerability to certain medical conditions, which could help in prevention or dealing with a condition if it should arise.
     Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor, has done two different series for PBS on searching records and using DNA testing to help persons with African heritage find their genetic background, both African and other, and dealing with the new information or lack of information. In the most recent, which aired in February 2009, he worked with twelve well-known persons besides himself. They had access to some extremely sophisticated DNA tests, which most of us cannot afford at this time. He had previously learned that his own genetic makeup is 50% Sub-Saharan African, 50% European, largely Irish. He also learned he did not have measurable Native American, as his family had long thought they did. Watching him, and the other persons, learn their genetic makeup and absorb that information, was fascinating and moving. For some, it was difficult to accept the percentage of non-African heritage, while for others, that was no surprise. Using census records, newspaper articles, property records, ship manifests from the slavery business, and family or church records, he was able to help his subjects find names and even pictures, of ancestors. His own brother was able to buy their great-great grandmother’s house, which she had been able to purchase shortly after the Civil War. On his Irish side, he was able to actually locate, through Y-DNA testing, the exact name of a male ancestor in 450 A.D. For a man named Tom Joyner, he was able to unearth some sad family history, a picture of a white male ancestor whose gray eyes Mr. Joyner had inherited. Almost tearful, he looked at the picture and said, “I’ve never met anyone in my family before who had eyes like mine.” Some were able to locate particular African tribes, or at least African nations, where their ancestors had come from. Some were surprised, some were not. Some found significant amounts of Ashkenazie or Sephardic Jewish background, while some learned that their white ancestor lived next door to their black ancestor. One learned that because his black forebear was male and his white forebear was an Irish indentured servant, her children (his next generation ancestors) were free, although if the mother had been slave and the father white, the children would have been slaves.
     One of the people participating in this series, Bliss Broyard, had written a book about finding out, as her father was dying, that he had passed for white, but had African ancestry. She never knew her father’s family until after he died. She said she felt cheated of half her heritage, even though she understood her father’s reasons for “passing.” Her DNA test revealed 17i% African heritage. For many people, this is relevant. Many of us wonder who the first ancestor was who “passed” and why. For adoptees who find out they have previously unknown African ancestry, the answer may have been that listing them as “white” made them more adoptable. For others, it may have been survival, educational and professional opportunities, housing options, or the legal right to marry the person of their choice. Many stories are lost, many relationships were altered or lost, because people denied or were denied their genetic heritage. Holocaust survivors sometimes learn similar facts. For Ms. Broyard, it has led her to do family research, to seek cut her extended family and her cultural heritage, although she says she feels she does not have the right to identify as African American, because she didn’t grow up with it. Many adoptees can understand that. The yearning to find out one’s background is normal for everyone, including those whose ancestors “passed” and those who were adopted, or whose ancestors were adopted. Comedian Chris Rock, one of the participants in the series, said, “It’s like when an adoptee meets the birth parents. Even if the adoptive parents were lovely people and the upbringing was wonderful, that person still wants to know the rest of who he is.” Poet Maya Angelou, another participant, was not at all surprised at the tribal background she was able to determine, nor her white ancestry she had long been told she had. She had, in fact, been to that location in Africa and felt it was her ancestral home. She said, “No human can be more human than another human. We are all human.”
     Some persons not directly involved or affected by adoption may find it entertaining to engage in idle (sometimes wild) speculation about an adoptee’s birth parents or ethnic heritage, even saying the adoptee resembles the adoptive parents and that maybe the adoptive father is the birth father. Goofy at best, but hurtful in many cases, this sort of comment trivializes the situation, encourages adoptees to waste more time on fantasies of who their birth parents “might” be instead of legitimate search, and ignores the fact that appearances don’t always reflect genetics. For instance, Ms. Broyard looks an Anglo as many persons who have no African ancestry at all (other than the fact that all humans ultimately came from Africa several hundred thousand years ago) and another participant who is extremely dark has 20% white heritage. Adoptees and non-adoptees, especially as children and young people, wonder about certain features, fantasize about parents and about exotic ancestry, but adoptees may continue to fantasize as adults instead of finding the truth. Sometimes one feels more in control of one’s own fantasies than of the real, but unbendable, truth.
     Adoptive parents can encourage search and reunion by accepting as normal the desire for information, by opening adoptions if possible, by having open adoptions from the beginning to whatever degree possible, by showing their own interest in learning more about both their own and the adoptee’s genetics, and possibly even by helping the adoptee pay for a DNA test as a gift. A birth parent’s DNA testing can be a gift to their reunited offspring, both tests for ancestral migration, for ethnicity, and for relatedness to other individuals. For adoptees who search, besides the adoption records, they might look at census records, court records, newspaper articles, property records, and those with African heritage, slave ship records. It used to be said that black persons could not trace specific ancestry beyond this country or slavery, but the truth, aside from DNA tests, turns out to be that because the slave trade was big business, careful records were kept, including ship manifests that listed captives’ names, ages, and places of origin. For persons more recently adopted from Asia or Latin America, there may be much more careful records than previously thought, as some Korean adoptees have learned. For others, they may be able to at least find towns or ether identities beyond just the country of origin.
     Adoption professionals can help all those with adoption connections by giving whatever information they can, by changing agencies’ policies and helping push for legislative changes to make access to records easier, and by promoting open adoptions. If an agency is still doing closed domestic adoptions, the employee ought to ask why and question if they themselves are being complicit in this practice.
     Professional therapists can encourage search and reion, by accepting as normal the desire for information and the yearning to know the truth. They can inform themselves about search procedures in their state and help clients, whether adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, or spouses or siblings of the above, to work through their own issues surrounding adoption. For instance, some adoptees are dismayed at finding that more than one birth relative has the same last name, and immediately jumps to the conclusion that they were the product of incest or first cousins. Although that is possible, and would be something a therapist might help the client process, in many cases, they might be better advised that in small towns, people are frequently related in more than one way, that in the past, particularly in New Mexico, settlers had large families that resulted in distant cousin marriage, or just in large numbers of descendants with names like Chavez, Sanchez, Baca, Duran, Montoya, Aragon, etc., who are no longer considered related. In other places, surnames came from villages, professions or clans, and might not mean close genetic relatedness. Previous generations of adoption may also confuse the issue. If a client discovers, through search and reunion or through DNA testing, that there is heritage previously unconfirmed or unsuspected, a therapist can help that person incorporate that new knowledge into their self-concept in a positive way.
     If the reader has not had some kind of DNA test, it might prove very interesting to have one. If it’s a priority, one could see it as a gift to self, or suggest to others they could contribute to the testing fund instead of a conventional birthday gift, for instance. Remember, you’re not responsible for your DNA, only for your behavior!

Excerpted from the April 2009 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2009 Operation Identity