Genomics, internet, and adoption

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Author: 
Doug Chalke
Source: 
Focus on Adoption magazine

How biology and technology provide powerful tools for adoption reunion.

With advances in computer technology and DNA science, it seemed likely that a way would be found for the far-flung children of China to find their birth families. That day seemed far off. However, it has arrived 20 years before I expected it.

A new kind of Internet website provides the means for parents of children adopted from China, or anywhere else, to discover if their child has a sibling, half-sibling, cousin or other relative elsewhere in the world. In addition, birth parents will be able to search for their adopted biological child. I don't think it is an overstatement to say that this is the most startling development in the field of adoption information in the past 25 years.

There are two new kinds of website in particular that seem useful to the adoption community. The first are DNA social networking sites; the second are primarily gene-decoding sites.

DNA and adoption

DNA Adoption Networking is a part of a new internet service the New York Times has called Zygotic Social Networking. These networking services permit users to build a social network around shared genetic material. Users are able to post photos, update their profiles, blog, and send messages to each other. More importantly, they facilitate searches for relatives and allow members to compare genetic makeup.

Basically, you sign up with the service, do a cheek swab, send it in, and a portion of your genetic makeup gets compared to others on the databank. You or someone else (somewhere in the world) can then click on a map that shows a marker for every other member around the world who shares genetic markers found in your DNA profile.

Perhaps even more amazing is that the creators of these websites believe that this is only the beginning of potential usefulness. Experts believe that every new discovery in the field of genetics will provide the users with new information about their identities.

Who can use this service?

A broad spectrum of the adoption community will be able to make use of these sites.

  • Biological parents who placed a child for adoption (or perhaps abandoned a child).

  • When adopted children become teenagers or young adults, they often want to find out more about their roots. While they may not find their birth parents immediately, they may locate other relatives. In order to identify siblings, half-siblings, cousins or grandparents, it will be necessary for one of their biological parents to register on the site. (At this time you need a parent to also register in order to say definitively that two relatives are siblings.) Those relatives may turn up immediately or a decade or two later as new relatives register.

  • When adopted children become adults, they frequently want to investigate their roots. While adoptive parents usually explain to their children that they were adopted, that has not always been the case, nor is it universally true. As a result, individuals registering on these sites, who have no idea that they were adopted, may be in for a surprise.

  • Adoptive parents who want to find siblings, birth parents, or other relatives of their adopted child can register their child. Parents registering children over 13 require the child's agreement. In fact, it appears that inquisitive adopted teenagers could likely register themselves if they have access to $149.

  • Adoption agencies may want to include information about DNA Adoption Networking in their adoption education programs. It's a reality check for parents who state they want to adopt, but never want anything to do with the birth family and that is why they want to adopt overseas.

While most adopted children want to know who their biological parents are, this is not always true. However, for those who do want to know where their child is, or who their biological parent are, these websites are already producing results and matches.

Since DNA Adoption Networking will essentially provide a worldwide adoption reunion registry, people should think carefully before registering. While anyone can use one of these sites, special precautions need to be taken when they are used by the adoption community. Some individuals may wish to obtain counselling before registering. Adoption Reunion Registries are located in most jurisdictions and they frequently provide counselling to the parties both before and after a reunion.

What makes these sites so different from the websites described next is that no genetic information is given back to you (the participant).

DNA decoding

The second type of service now on the Internet that will impact adoptions provides the ability to decode a child's DNA. Adoptive families will find this site useful for many reasons. Your child's DNA is decoded, providing you with much valuable information. The experience is simultaneously unsettling, illuminating, and empowering.

For the adoption world, decoding services like this have extraordinary implications that include the following:

  • Decoding your child's DNA will provide you with significant information about the birth father and the birth mother. The websites claim they allow you to look 20 or 40 years into the future at significant DNA markers that will affect your child's health (such as pre-disposition to certain diseases). 
  • Once registered with some sites, you will be automatically advised over the next 10, 20, or 30 years, as medical science makes new discoveries and advances.
  • In some situations, DNA decoding may become available as part of pre-adoption medical and social information about the child. Currently, parents receive limited medical information, photographs, and sometimes a video. Perhaps, in the future, a DNA swab will become part of this pre-adoption information package.
  • As countries become more selective about whom may adopt their children (such as China) will they want DNA tests of the adopting parents? Adopting parents already have to supply medical and lab reports as part of a dossier for international adoption. Are DNA reports next?

These websites will bring great opportunities, but also great quandaries. We will no longer have the problem of not knowing, but instead have the burden of whether we want to know in the first place. We will know whether our children are predisposed to certain traits or talents, athletics, music or languages, and we'll encourage them to pursue certain paths. I have recently described these websites to clients, friends and relatives. It is interesting how many people have said, "But do you really want to know this information?" Clearly, some people would rather just let the future unfold.

Cautions

Be careful what you wish for. By going down this road, you may be opening a Pandora's Box. In short, we are on the brink of scientific and technological breakthroughs that are going to change adoption in a way that has never happened before.

Please consider the following:

  • Privacy: What is more personal than your DNA? Each of these websites has a privacy statement. Please read these before registering. It is important to understand what privacy protection is offered and whether you can set your own level of privacy on the site. Also keep in mind that the world doesn't always work perfectly. If you put information on the Internet, there is a chance of it getting loose by accident or otherwise.
  • Concerns: There are social, moral, and ethical issues involved in registering your or your child's DNA on a website. Before registering on any site, prospective applicants should read the China Adoption DNA Project website where the site creators have considered the implications of parents taking the step of trying to find biological relatives in this way. Please read and think about these issues before registering on a DNA Adoption Networking site.
  • Second test: If you join one of these websites and find a match that is important to you, please confirm it with a second and more formal DNA test. An article in the Journal of Science warned that popular do-it-yourself DNA tests could produce incomplete results.
  • Early days: These websites have just started up. It will take time for enough families to register worldwide for there to be many matches of close relatives. Keep your expectations low for now and check in from time to time.
  • Men and women: Men can get a lot more out of DNA testing than women because they inherit both an x and y chromosome. For women to get the same results, they need to supply a sample from a close male relative like a brother or father.
  • Language: The scientific words and terminology used on these websites can be challenging. Some sites have a glossary or definition section. That's a good place to start in understanding this field of research.
  • Registering: A recent survey of adopting parents (by the China Adoptions DNA Project) found that while the adoption community is keenly interested in learning more about how a DNA database could benefit their children and families, the overwhelming majority of parents currently do not know enough about it or are not comfortable enough with what they do know to take the next step and join a database. I encourage adoptive families to spend time on the DNA websites listed at the end of this article. Review their DNA science lessons, read the FAQ's and watch the videos. You will learn a lot.

Of course, if you're only registered on one site, it reduces the possibility of matches. Perhaps all the members of the adoption triad in the world who want to share this information should register on only one of these sites; or on a site yet to be created specifically for the adoption community. In the future there will undoubtedly be more of these kinds of websites, and their usefulness will advance as science advances.

Welcome to the Age of Genomics. Adoption will never be quite the same!

Reprinted with permission of Sunrise Adoption Services.