DNA testing for a holiday gift? Be prepared for aftershocks and fallout.

12/14/2017 10:42 am ET

Several DNA testing companies are advertising DNA kits as perfect gifts for the holidays. The commercial shows a patriarch in a holiday sweater opening the door to presumably a daughter who is tagged to share 51.7% DNA, a presumed granddaughter who shares 25.3% DNA and a whole host of other people sharing approximately 25% or 50% of DNA. Imagine an entire family sitting around the Christmas tree or menorah. Everyone swabs the insides of their cheeks for sample to send back to the testing company.

Now imagine it is Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Lent or Purim. The family gathers again for the holiday to reveal the results. Surprise. Grandpa is not biologically related to Uncle Bob. Grandma has some explaining to do. Uncle Bob thinks this was a conspiracy to strip him of his inheritance. Uncle Bob’s daughter, your cousin, proclaims she never liked this family anyway.

I am a pediatric hematologist/oncologist. My patients often need bone marrow or stem cell transplants. We look first to family members to find a matched donor because transplants from related donors result in fewer complications. I have several cases in which we tested families and discovered non-paternity. In one case, the father was not biologically related to the patient nor the patient’s 3 siblings who turned out to all have different fathers. I only told the parents there were no suitable family donors. Confirming paternity is not the goal of these tests. If this man suspected that he was raising other men’s children, he never let on and he continued to support and love those children.

Family testing in transplant situations like the above has the lowest paternal discrepancies with approximately 2% non-paternity discovered. This is unlike some “Baby Daddy” testing centers that may have as high as 30% non-paternity results. Still, in the best of circumstances, at least 2% of the time, the true sperm donor was misidentified.

Contrary to what the commercial would like you to believe, shared DNA does not increase the likelihood of a happy, loving, and functional family. Biology does not guarantee a parent will be nurturing and supportive. One of my patients had an amputation due to bone cancer. His mother who had abandoned him as an infant, suddenly appeared at his bedside with pseudo concern, then stole her son’s pain medications, cell phone, laptop, and even his winter parka. The word “parent” is a noun, but its most important meaning is as a verb. It is the action of parenting--the caretaking and devotion--that makes one a parent, not the passage of DNA.

The commercial ends by fading to the words “100% family.” DNA can be an introduction to someone who may ultimately love, encourage, and support you, but DNA does not ensure it. In fact, DNA can sometimes be the chain that ties us down to have Thanksgiving with that inebriated uncle, chronically negative aunt, or creepy cousin.

I argue that DNA should be the least important aspect of family. Family is made by people who have a shared history, who have comforted and protected each other, laughed and cried together.

Is giving the gift of DNA testing something people really want? Would you want to find out that you may be related to the others in your other family? Are you prepared for the aftermath if your father learned of infidelity? Are you prepared to learn you are not who you think you are?

My friend’s religious and ethnic identities were rocked by DNA testing. She is the head of a Hispanic, Latino and Caribbean Studies Department. She and her family thought they were of Peruvian ancestry and Catholic background. She devoted her learning and professional career to that identity then learned her ancestors were South East Asian, Middle Eastern and likely both Jewish and Muslim. Imagine reconciling that at the next department meeting.

Some commercial DNA test companies advertise health screening. Imagine that that you at the Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Lent or Purim table with your extended family and learn you and your children are at high risk to develop Alzheimer’s dementia. Uncle Bob’s wife snidely says she always knew you weren’t “all there.” Imagine your pregnant daughter and her husband learn they both carry the gene for cystic fibrosis. A festive and enjoyable holiday gift indeed.

Are these gifts that unsuspecting people want? Before ordering a DNA test kit as a gift, make sure you know what is being tested, what the possible surprises could be, and consider whether you want or need know. It may be enough to know you are lucky to share the holidays with those you love, those who support you, and whom you call family regardless of DNA and that you are enjoying the moment in its fullest.

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