Just because you can do something doesn't mean you necessarily should, right? I'm in one of those on-the-fence places right now because I've just gotten the results back from a DNA-testing kit that I used for my two children adopted from China.
What was I hoping to learn? Honestly, I don't know. Sometimes you know so little that you don't even know what there is to know. That would kind of sum up our dive into the deep end of the DNA-testing pool.
We used a direct-to-consumer DNA testing company called 23andme.com, which you may have heard of because, using their services, a Utah woman just learned that her daughter -- conceived with help from a fertility clinic in the early 1990s -- is actually the biological daughter of the former clinic receptionist. The woman's husband donated his sperm and the family had assumed it was used to produce their child. It wasn't. Yeah, DNA testing can open up a can of worms like that one.
You also may have heard of 23andme.com because the FDA recently made it stop doing health-risk analyses. The FDA didn't think it was wise to deliver those results directly to lowly consumers without the contextual information that only an expensive visit with a doctor or geneticist could provide.
The FDA thinks that without this expert medical guidance, we-the-masses might ignore potential health problems. I can only say that if someone chooses to ignore the breast lump she discovers in the shower because her $100 DNA kit didn't alert her to the fact that she might be at a higher risk of breast cancer, well, some people don't need a DNA analysis to prove stupidity.
Frankly, I don't think the FDA in this case was serving the needs of the public as much as it was serving the needs of Big Medicine -- which would strongly prefer that patients who want genetic testing done to pay upward of $5,000 and then get a one-on-one consultation with a doctor to tell them what they should or should not be worried about.
To be fair, doing direct-to-consumer DNA testing has people concerned for other reasons as well -- most notably, the long-term privacy of the results. We live in a moment when going to Target and paying with a debit card can expose 70 million people to fraud, so what guarantee is there that our DNA samples won't be accessible to someone down the road in a way that could be harmful? None, I suppose.
Truth is, I believe that nothing is private or secure anymore. Today I'm busy trying to keep Facebook "friends" from adding me to groups I never heard of and want no part of. If I can't manage Facebook, how can I protect the privacy of my children's DNA samples in the future when I can't even fathom what dangers lurk? I don't even know what I am protecting them against, so I choose to ignore it.
Which leads me to the results we got. The 23andme.com kits aren't just for health analyses. They also give you some clues to your ancestry, going back to the Neanderthals. You are told your maternal and paternal haplogroups -- in molecular evolution, a haplogroup is people who share a common ancestor who has the same single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) mutation -- and your haplogroup sub-group, which breaks it down even farther.
And 23andme.com also matches you up with possible relatives, albeit some pretty distant ones in our case. But this, for us, was where the fun began.
Since we got her results, my 16-year-old daughter has been emailing around the world with "relatives" whose genetic paths intersect with hers. She has a "third to distant cousin" whose father, we learned, was born in Bangkok, but immigrated there from China and married a woman whose parents were also immigrants from the same part of China -- which, not coincidentally, is where my daughter is from. They were ethnic Teochew people. The family now owns one of the most popular Thai brands of instant noodles.
She's also learned she is connected to a man born in southern Taiwan in the 1940s who was one of 12 children. His ancestors came from Fujian province in China, which is far from my daughter's. The man lived in Taiwan until the mid 1980s and then immigrated to Chicago. One of his daughters -- a woman in her 30s with two children -- lives near us in Los Angeles; we haven't gotten as far as asking if she'd like to meet.
And a woman with whom she shares a not insignificant amount of DNA -- and who is clearly not Chinese -- rebuffed the idea that she would be related to someone who is 96 percent Chinese. I stopped myself from emailing her back, saying "Surprise!"
As expected, we've also heard from multiple parents of Chinese adoptees asking what my daughter's haplogroups are and would we be willing to share genetic results with them. It gives me some pause each time I get the request, but then I do it thinking that if you don't throw your rod in the water you'll never catch any fish.
What we've learned is that connecting with a close biological relative through a DNA ancestry registry is a crap shoot, but a crap shoot with odds that improve daily. As direct-to-consumer DNA databases grow, so do our chances of finding a biological relative.
There's is another side though to what, for us, has amounted to a giant parlor game of international find-your-roots. There are many adult adoptees who are searching for their biological parents and have turned en masse to 23andme for help. Their stories flood the site's community forums and they share their hope that someone is looking for them with the same intensity they are seeking their birth mothers and fathers.
And then of course there are the "oh no" moments, like the young woman who posed a question in a community forum about why her maternal haplogroup was different from that of the woman who raised her and who she believed was her biological mother. Kind souls suggested there could be an error in the sampling and urged her to be re-tested elsewhere. And then of course there is the young woman in Utah who learned that her Dad wasn't actually her biological dad.
It's a Pandora's Box and I fear we have opened it wide, me included.
Follow Ann Brenoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AnnBrenoff