DNA’s new ‘miracle’: How adoptees are using online registries to find their blood relatives
By Tara Bahrampour
Oct 12 2016
Last year, Bob Nore, a Vietnam War veteran in Huntsville, Ala., was working on a family tree and wanted to trace his ancestors’ history and origins. So he sent a vial of saliva and $89 to a DNA registry for analysis.
The results showed British and Nordic stock — no surprises. But then Nore received a message from the registry that floored him: We have found a very high probability of a father-son relationship between you and Son Vo.
“I showed it to my wife, and then I looked him up online and found out that he was born in Vietnam shortly after I left,” said Nore, 67.
He vaguely recalled a brief relationship with a Vietnamese woman in Saigon in 1970, but he remembered little about her and had no idea she was pregnant. Yet he had no doubt that Vo, a 45-year-old musician in Los Angeles, was his son. As an engineer, he said, “I have a lot of trust in DNA.”
Most people who register with DNA databases are looking for information about their ethnic origins or exploring distant branches of the family tree. But the rapidly expanding databases have also had an unintended consequence: They are helping people find biological parents whose identities had long been mysteries.
The implications are wide-reaching. For adoptees, birthparents, children of single mothers with unknown fathers, and fathers unaware that they had a child, the answers to lifelong questions or the revelations of closely guarded secrets may now pop up in inboxes without warning. The technology can raise privacy concerns and lead to emotional complications.
“There’s complex baggage that goes with it,” said Jennifer Utley, a family historian with AncestryDNA, the registry Nore used. The company’s database includes around 2 million people from 30 countries, including thousands seeking birthparents. “All we can say is, ‘You’re going to open up these results, there may be surprises there.’ ”
That may be especially true for adoptees. While some have no interest in seeking out biological relatives, others, particularly older adoptees who grew up in a more secretive era, describe a nagging sense of something unresolved. DNA registries hold out the possibility of closure.
Some adoptees have found biological relatives when they didn’t set out to.
Michael Reed, 61, an adoptee in Mundelein, Ill., had already been rebuffed by a birth mother he had found through traditional means. He signed up with the registry 23andme simply to learn about his ancestry, and he was taken aback when he was matched with a first cousin once removed. Together they figured out that her cousin in Utah was likely Reed’s biological father.
“I was so afraid,” he said. “I’m not what I would call a devout person, but I literally went to my bedroom, dropped to my knees, and prayed that I wouldn’t cause any harm to Dad and his family, that I’d find the right words to say.”
At first, the father, who is 81, thought it was a scam. But when further DNA testing confirmed the match, he invited Reed to Salt Lake City to meet him and his family, which includes nine half-siblings.