What donor offspring seek when they do DNA testing

By | September 26, 2019

I wrote previously about parents who fear that their donor-conceived children might uncover long-held secrets through DNA testing. Many were unsettled by Dani Shapiro’s memoir Inheritance, which told of how a DNA test done for no particular reason dismantled a family story. Now let’s consider reasons why some people who know they were donor-conceived might pursue DNA testing.

Why might people who were donor-conceived seek DNA testing?

Donor-conceived adults who embark upon DNA testing may, like Shapiro, stumble upon information accidentally. Their experience with DNA testing is not explored in this post, which focuses on those whose choice to do testing followed one of these three paths:

  • They were told their conception story at a young age, but had limited information about their donor and his or her family.
  • They were only recently told of their donor conception, but grew up knowing something was different or left unspoken (the “unknown known”).
  • As adults, they were completely startled to learn that they were donor-conceived.

What might people hope to learn through DNA testing?

So what might these people seek — and hope to find — in DNA testing? Everyone is different and DNA testers have a wide range of reasons for swabbing their cheeks. Yet most have the desire to better understand their personal story. We all have origin stories that circle around our ancestry, ethnicity, and the circumstances of our conception and birth. Whether they grow up always knowing, or learn of donor conception as young adults, personal stories for the donor-conceived are complicated. Questions people hope to have answered include:

  • Why did he or she become a donor? Am I simply the product of a transaction, or were there other reasons that motivated someone to donate?
  • Who else am I related to? This question is especially compelling for sperm donor offspring, who may have large numbers of genetic half-siblings. This is less often true for those conceived from donated eggs, yet there are the donor’s children, her nieces and nephews, all those she donated to, and in some instances, children born through embryos donated to other families after the original recipient family was complete.
  • What is my ethnicity? What does it mean if the ethnicity in my DNA does not match the ethnic identity I was raised with? One woman I spoke with had grown up believing she was Irish on her mother’s side and Jewish (Ashkenazi) on her dad’s side. When the DNA test results came back indicating she is 100% Irish, she felt a sense of loss. She always felt proud to be half Jewish. Did this mean that she is not?
  • What abilities and vulnerabilities might I have inherited from the donor? For many, the high beam of this question directs itself to medical issues. This can go both ways: learning one’s actual medical history may relieve worries regarding illnesses in the family, or it may bring new medical concerns. Either way, those who are just learning they were donor-conceived as adults have relied on a family medical history that they now know to be only half complete.
  • Most people feel they came from two people. I came from three. What does this mean for my identity? People conceived with donated eggs are often, though not always, told of the donation from a young age. They grow up always knowing that they are gestationally, but not genetically, connected to their mothers. Part of their task as they mature is sorting out as best they can what it means to literally come from three people. (Sperm donor offspring, by contrast, must reconcile with the fact that they have no physical connection to their fathers.)
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What does the future hold?

The world of commercially available DNA testing is still in its infancy. These days it is being heavily marketed in the media as a nifty gift, an interesting tool, a key that will unlock doors. Undoubtedly its uses, and its meaning for all of us, will unfold and evolve over time. The questions it raises and the “answers” it provides are surely more complex and multidimensional for the donor-conceived.

For more information

If you’d like further information and support, you may find these organizations helpful.

Donor Conception Network

Donor Sibling Registry

Harvard Health Blog