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When Laura* got engaged, she and her fiancé decided to take an at-home genetics test from 23andMe, just to find out if the two of them had any health risks they should know about. Laura’s mom had Alzheimer’s, which particularly concerned her. When her risk came back at 12.5 percent, she asked her parents to take the test, too. When she got the results, she noticed something strange.

“My dad wasn’t in there as my relative,” says Laura.

Her first reaction was that there must be some mistake. She emailed the company to tell them they’d done something wrong. They hadn’t. At 34, Laura, like a small but growing segment of young adults, had inadvertently discovered that she was conceived with donor sperm.

As direct-to-consumer gene testing has become more popular, family secrets aren’t staying secrets the way they used to. For many people who know they were adopted or conceived with assistance from donor sperm or eggs, this can be a boon: They now have a way to search for biological siblings and parents even without a paper trail from an adoption agency or fertility clinic, just by opting into large online databases like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and finding biological relatives who have also done the genetic tests. But for many people not expecting to find any surprises in their DNA, the experience of mailing off a spit sample and discovering that their family is not as they thought it was can be profoundly disorienting—even life-changing, as Laura says.

“It created a lot of drama with my dad,” she says. Her father died not long after the truth about Laura’s conception came out. “Things never got quite back to how they were before.”

In the genes

There isn’t much research on experiences like Laura’s, in part because there are few studies from unbiased samples to understand the spectrum of what donor-conceived people go through and how they respond, says Andrea Braverman, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who focuses on psychological issues surrounding infertility and assisted reproduction. It’s impossible to survey people whose families have skeletons in the closet that they don’t know about; it’s also impossible to find the people who discover a secret about their genetic history and then slam the closet door closed again, burying it. Many research participants are drawn from groups of people actively searching for biological relatives.

What is known comes from a combination of research on adoptive families and on assisted-reproduction families with younger children. There are two major themes that emerge from these studies. First, searching for one’s biological origins is a typical urge, and a deep desire to know about genetic history does not indicate that a person is rejecting the family that raised him or her. Second, the earlier families are open about origins, the healthier they seem to be.

“The search for self is a very normative human experience,” says David Brodzinsky, PhD, a professor emeritus of clinical and developmental psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has spent his career researching and counseling adoptive families.

Pollock (center) felt an immediate connection when she met her half sisters Megan Zumbach (right) and Jocie Ballmann (left).Until the advent of direct-to-consumer DNA testing, which requires nothing more than a little bit of saliva to decode a person’s ancestry and hint at some of his or her health risks, adoptees or people conceived with the help of donor gametes had few options. Many older domestic adoption records are sealed, and overseas adoption remains similarly secretive, depending on the country. Fertility clinics have traditionally offered sperm and egg donors anonymity, leaving the children conceived in this way with little recourse when they reach adulthood and start looking for their biological origins. The landscape is changing—out-of-wedlock pregnancy and infertility no longer carry the stigma they once did, and some countries, like the United Kingdom, are even passing laws against donor anonymity—but those changes are too late for many.

However, commercial DNA testing, like the mail-in kits offered by 23andMe or Ancestry.com, remains the only option for many adoptees or donor-conceived individuals. Commercial kits are now a common part of the “search” toolkit, Brodzinsky says.

For Erin,* whose mom told her at the age of 35 that she was conceived by sperm donation, a 23andMe kit was the first place she looked for answers. Erin had long had her suspicions that something was different about her. She was so unlike her dad growing up that she once asked if she was adopted. Another time, she questioned her mom about whether she and her father were really related, but she quickly backed off when her mom skirted the issue.

Since discovering that she was donor conceived and taking a genetic test, Erin has bonded with her biological half brother, who was also conceived through sperm donation, and figured out the identity of her biological father via the discovery of shared relatives online. She’s written him a letter, she says, but she doesn’t know if he ever received it.

“I want to know about him as a person,” she says. “It’s fascinating to me that I have this whole mystery ingredient in my personality and background.”

The search for self

Adoptive or nongenetic parents sometimes fear that their children’s search for their biological histories means that they are rejecting the family that raised them. This fear was what drove a wedge between Laura and the father who raised her, she says. Though she tried to reassure him, their relationship remained strained.

Parents often fear that their children will be angry or reject them if they find out their biological origins, says Susan Golombok, PhD, the director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who has done some of the most comprehensive research available on families who achieved reproduction with outside help, including donor eggs, donor sperm and gestational surrogacy. But Golombok’s research suggests otherwise. In a longitudinal study of 87 families who used reproductive donation, she has found that sharing details about the circumstances of conception with a child before age 7 is associated with a more positive parent-child relationship and better adolescent well-being than waiting until later (The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 58, No. 3, 2017). Young children have a range of responses to being told, Golombok says, but most are neutral or curious.

“It seems the earlier parents begin to talk to their children, then the better the outcomes,” she says.

In fact, the desire to search for a biological parent may indicate that a child has a good relationship with the family who raised him or her. In one study of 7- to 13-year-old kids of single moms who conceived with a sperm donor, children with secure attachments to their mothers were more likely to view the donor positively than those with insecure attachments (Human Reproduction, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2017).

When children feel secure in their relationships with their parents, they “feel more able to explore the world around them,” Golombok says.

Starting a search

Even if parents want to keep a secret, the advent of DIY gene tests has made that a dicey prospect. Sometimes these tests even reveal truths that no one knew.

Hayley,* 24, took a 23andMe test in 2013 as a fun birthday gift for herself. Earlier this year, she got a notification: Her biological father had joined the company’s online network and wanted to contact her.

The man Hayley knew as her father had passed away several years earlier, so finding out he wasn’t her biological father was a shock. She talked to her mother, who opened up: On her and Hayley’s father’s third in vitro fertilization try, they’d mixed Hayley’s dad’s sperm with donor sperm. Hayley had grown up looking and acting so much like her father that her parents just assumed that his sperm had won out. Without a genetic test, neither Hayley nor her mother would ever have realized that it hadn’t.

For Hayley, the revelations were upsetting and relieving all at once; it was a shock, she says, to find out she wasn’t related to her dad. However, the disease that killed him has a hereditary component, she says, so knowing they lack that genetic link lifts some of her fear for her own health. Hayley is in occasional email contact with her biological father and says she may be interested in having a closer relationship with him in the future, but for now she is just glad he seems like a nice guy.

Pollock, Zumbach and Ballmann now meet frequently along with donor sibling Brian Tiede (far right) and second cousin Daniel Emery (center).The relationships adoptees or donor offspring end up having with their biological relatives is highly variable, Brodzinsky says. The research on adoptive family searches, which is more comprehensive than the research on donor families, shows that, occasionally, there is the heartbreak of rejection, he says. Most often, though, the search-and-­discovery process is positive. For offspring, there’s a chance to resolve lingering questions about their identities and the opportunity to feel acceptance. Laura discovered her biological father through genetic testing and says the experience made her a more confident person. She has been able to reconcile traits in herself that she never saw in the parents who raised her, and she feels more connected to her origins. It helped that her biological father was welcoming, she says.

“It’s relieving to know that the person who was one of your sources accepts you and wants to know you,” she says.

For biological parents, particularly those who gave children up for adoption, reunification often relieves guilt, uncertainty and what can be deep scars over the decision, Brodzinsky says. “It helps them to resolve what has been a really complicated bereavement process for them,” he says.

Biological siblings and half siblings often forge bonds that are relatively uncomplicated by the baggage that can dog biological parents and offspring. Erin has met a half brother through DNA testing; she, Laura and Hayley have all expanded their searches to Ancestry.com in case they have unknown brothers or sisters.

There are a few general demographic trends in family search. Historically, women have searched for their relatives more than men have, Brodzinsky says, possibly because women are socialized to confront emotions and to self-reflect more than men are. This gender schism appears to hold today. The ratio of women to men in donor-­conceived and DNA-related Facebook groups is about four to one, Erin estimates.

Offspring have also historically initiated searches for relatives at a higher rate than parents or donors, Brodzinsky says.

“Historically, birth mothers were counseled to ‘put it in the past, forget about it, get on with your life’ and encouraged to believe that they are giving their child a better life and it’s best not to disrupt that life,” he says. In recent decades, that professional advice has changed, and adoptive parents are now more likely to opt for open adoptions from the beginning and to be empowered to contact their biological children.

On their own

Unfortunately, there aren’t many psychological resources available for people who stumble across family secrets with DNA testing—or even for those who want to use the tests to shine a light on complicated family matters they already knew about. Most counselors specialize in adoption, which does have some overlap with assisted-reproduction families, but donor conception has unique issues, too. Erin, for example, saw a counselor in the early stages of discovering she was donor conceived, but she felt like she did more to educate her therapist about the issue than vice versa.

One of the biggest benefits of at-home DNA testing—its speed and ease—can also cause emotional whiplash. Forget painstakingly combing through documents or hunting down genealogy charts in dusty libraries: New relatives can appear with the click of a mouse.

“In a four-month period, I went through a complete identity shift, gained a brother and was looking up pictures of my biological father,” Erin says.

Laura felt a similar breathless need for more information. She says she rushed into her own search and tried to move too fast, resulting in some uncomfortable interactions with a man she mistook for her biological father in her early attempts at making familial connections. She also confided that she was donor conceived to the wrong person early on, who spilled the news to the father who raised her, robbing Laura of the chance to talk with him first. She now advises people to think hard about who they tell family secrets to.

“Not everybody has your best interests in mind,” she says.

While psychologists don’t necessarily suggest that everyone considering sending away for a 23andMe kit see a counselor first, they do recommend taking time to think about the potential fallout. Consider what genetics mean to your identity, Braverman urges, and think about your goals in exploring your DNA history. She also recommends considering your options for support: Do you have family members you trust to talk to about anything you might uncover? Can you go to your primary-care physician with questions about health information?

“[People need to] start first with, ‘What am I actually trying to do here?’” Braverman says. “And try to set it up for success rather than doing it randomly and finding out information that you’re unprepared for.”

Despite the complications testing brought to her life, Laura is emphatically grateful to know the truth about her family.

“Knowing where I came from gave me a sense of completeness that I’ve needed my entire life, and that will help me going forward,” she says.

A turn toward activism

If professional resources are slim, community resources are another story. A possibly unforeseen development of DIY gene testing is the online communities that have sprung up around adoptees and donor-conceived people. There are closed groups on Facebook as well as websites and wikis: We Are Donor Conceived, DNA for the Donor Conceived, the Donor Sibling Registry, DNA Detectives and DNAadoption.com, to name a few.

On these sites, genealogists offer up their skills to hunt down long-lost relatives, and newcomers are greeted with a sense of solidarity—and, in many cases, get turned on to political advocacy. Adoptees are still fighting, state by state, to unseal old adoption records, Brodzinsky says. Many donor-conceived adults and children are incensed that clinics can sell gametes for a profit while keeping information about the donor’s identity from the resulting offspring. There are no truly representative peer-reviewed studies on donor-conceived individuals’ opinions on anonymity, though surveys of offspring, donors and parents active on the Donor Sibling Registry in 2014 found that 32 percent of gamete donors, 31 percent of parents who are raising donor-conceived kids and 46 percent of donor-conceived offspring agreed or strongly agreed that donors should not be anonymous (Journal of Law and the Biosciences, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2016).

The United Kingdom outlawed anonymous donation in 2005, making it possible for kids conceived after that date to find out their donor’s information when they turn 18. There are no such regulations in the United States. Many donor-conceived adults have become advocates for changing U.S. laws, a fight that can be identity-confirming in its own right.

“I personally believe that wanting to know where you come from is a fundamental part of being human, and in erasing that possibility for us, the clinics are expecting us to be less than human,” Erin says.

Laura, whose discovery that she was donor conceived was so disruptive to her family relationships, found healing by becoming an egg donor herself. She has a biological daughter who knows who she is and who she knows in return.

“I knew that other children were going to be born by donor conception,” Laura says. “I wanted to be one of the donors who did it the right way.” 

*First names have been used to protect privacy.

Further reading

Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms
Golombok, S. Cambridge University Press, 2015

Contact With Birth Family in Adoptive Families Headed by Lesbian, Gay Male, and Heterosexual Parents
Brodzinsky, D.M., & Goldberg, A.E. Children and Youth Services Review, 2016

A Longitudinal Study of Families Formed Through Reproductive Donation: Parent-Adolescent Relationships and Adolescent Adjustment at Age 14
Golombok, S., et al. Developmental Psychology, 2017