What Good Is Genetic Testing For Orphans?

Several for-profit companies now make personalized genetic testing more widely and readily available than in the past, adding the particularly attractive feature of widespread comparison amongst people’s genomes.[1]

The usefulness of such genetic testing (for orphans and non-orphans alike) resides almost wholly in the breadth of participation by other people who have been tested, since the hope to locate one’s immediate family depends heavily (maybe entirely) on whether someone in that family has also been tested at the same site as you (but see the note on GEDMatch below). [2] Such testing will most likely provide indirect clues to one’s actual genetic family (second cousins and further back), principally because there are simply more of those to be found, and especially if one’s needed “search base” is transnational.[3]

In brief, such testing offers a tool not an answer. It requires work (from the orphan) and often depends upon the kindness of (distantly related) strangers to yield actual “answers”. [4] That is, when such sites “find” that one has 500+ “third or more distantly related cousins” represents a kind of bad faith as an answer to “who am I related to” (or “what is my origin”).

I suspect that orphans may hope, but don’t really believe, genetic testing will provide an easy answer, but it seems clear that such a prospect is part of genetic testing’s pitch (to orphans and non-orphans alike). This opportunity for genetic testing tempts people to throw their hat into the “genetic searching” ring, promising some kind of “answer,” which, in fact, will almost certainly only be forthcoming if you do a lot of necessary work to “make” that answer. And if your answer even “exists” within the pool of people searched–again, an important issue for transnational orphans.

In general, I would note the much greater social justice in the demand to open previously closed adoption records than to emphasize any “work-around” that genetic testing might offer orphans. Whatever value genetic testing would or does have, to “locate one’s immediate family of origin” seems a red herring, tempting but not the most desirable gesture.

So what “good” (or “bad”) is genetic testing for orphans?


[1] This has occurred, ironically enough, at a time when states like Washington have instituted new rules allowing access to previously closed adoption records. This rule goes into effect tomorrow, 1 July 2014. My petition is already submitted.

[2] One of these developments includes GEDMatch, an independently operated genetic comparison database service that takes results from several for-profit (pay) sites, and lets you look even more widely and powerfully into degrees of connectedness with other genomes. As a volunteer-run, free service, keeping things running on their shoestring budget could use our support generally, especially as it adds strength to one’s ability to research paths of relatedness and origin.

[3] Like any “Internet” forum where the public gathers, the degree of helpfulness (and thus the degree of usefulness) in genetic testing varies. I’m fortunate to have landed in an anthropological sub-niche, which not only has dissertations and papers written about it, but also generates its own genealogical interest amongst its members. Without this help, short of a crash course in self-education (if I had been able to figure that out without any on-site help), access simply to the genetic information itself remains largely vague and not useable.

[4] Rather like the injustice of the child who has to pay for psychotherapy to deal with parental issues, the orphan is asked (or commanded) to bear the cost of this. My sister, who is also adopted, actually persuaded my adopting parents to pay for her psychotherapy, but when it came to hunting down her genetic relatives, she didn’t submit a similar demand for help.


5 thoughts on “What Good Is Genetic Testing For Orphans?

  1. I’ve been planning to do this for a while; mostly because I am convinced that a friend of mine who was in the orphanage at the same time is perhaps a sibling.

    As much as I have issues with privatized testing along these lines, I do see some benefit in the sense that this testing breaks out of notions of racial purity, and so there might be a beneficial side effect.

    And the fact that there are volunteer groups addressing this certainly tempers any reticence I have, so thanks for that.

    Last week an adoptee’s daughter who had contacted me suggested I do this, and she listed the names of families given to her as possible “matches”. I could tell from the names that they were Lebanese Christian families.

    This might point to the accuracy of the testing; but it might, as you imply, simply point out the basis for the sample pool. In which case we might say that it is skewed for cultural and economic reasons.

    It reminds me of a web site—leb.org—that is no longer online. Started by some Lebanese living in France, it allowed you to find relatives in the diaspora, based on last name.

    That it was mostly used by Christians reflects the sad history of Lebanon and “birds of a feather” sectarianism, but my point again is: Who is more likely to use such a service and why? How does that alter/change the results?

    “Red herring” describes it quite well. Does it help us to be this hyper-aware of such issues going into it? I think so. Should this prevent us from using such services? Perhaps. Especially if it simply opens up another fool’s errand of narrative building (which is my worry)….

  2. It definitely opens the possibility of narrative building, but if we can remember narratives are enjoyable fictions (in theory at least) then they become less problematic.

    It’s ironic; I thought you’d already done the test at 23andMe. That was certainly an input in my decision to test. So, knowing now that you haven’t, I would do some more research into the different companies.

    23andMe only tests a certain distance down one’s paternal haplogroup. Specifically, my parents were told I’m “Irish, German, and Welsh”. I specifically wanted to know (narrative building) if “Welsh” was true, but because genomes for males in the British Isles (surprise, surprise) are very, very extensively studied, there is a very great amount of distinction-making, some of which 23andMe is not refined enough, testing wise, to differentiate. To give you an idea of the degree, my paternal haplogroup (basically, the group that shares a single common unique male ancestor) is R1b1a1a2F* (the * points to more downstream distinctions that 23andMe doesn’t capture). That’s at least five branchings being tracked, and it’s not even as far as it goes; other paternal haplogroups might be distinguished (completely) with only 2 branchings.

    I apologise for being less well informed so as to be helpful, but it has something to do with the number of markers checked, tested for, whatnot. I think 23andMe does 22, but there are tests at family finder that test 37 markers, 61 markers, 111 markers, &c, and these go into more differentiating detail. The price goes up with more detailed tests. Y-DNA tests follow the paternal line (that’s what gives me my haplogroup above); mitochondrial DNA tracks on the maternal line; autosomal testing is the one that gives you lots of matches with genetically related cousins, &c. At 23andMe, it will show a maximum of 1000 autosomal matches, so that’s a limitation. And, again, all of this is US-based, so getting ancestral information outside of the US increases in difficulty.

    In your specific situation, the simplest thing is for both of you to be tested; if you are near siblings, you’ll show up as such regardless of the “depth” of the test. Also, with 23andMe, Ancestry.com and Family Finder (Family Tree DNA), results from each can be uploaded into GEDmatch (when it’s not down) and you can do a lot of crunching on your own. From most of the companies above, it’d be $99 a pop for testing.

  3. Based upon one’s biological origins, testing may or may not be entirely “useful” relative to finding blood kin since the individuals against whom one is comparing autosomal DNA seem to largely be from the US of A (I tested through 23andMe and uploaded data to FTDNA and GEDmatch). Still, the databases’ populations are expanding since the $99 (plus shipping) has put testing within the financial reach of many.

    I have testing to be useful in relation to cutting through the lies (“family” and “meritocracy” myths) I was told while growing up. “Knowing” my ancestral origins has resolved my uncertain status as a “stranger in a[n even] strange[r] land”, that is to say, my phenotype has been largely explained.

  4. Hi Snow,
    I’m probably not the best displaced person to discuss genetic testing – I haven’t done it and right now, it’s not on my priority list. I don’t think too much about it for my own personal, political and individual reasons and circumstances.

    While I’m pleased that it’s helped many people find out more info about themselves, sometimes vital info, and sometimes reconnect, I’m wary of companies like Ancestry.com, founded by members of an institution that profits off the exchange of children for money, power, and influence. Troy Dunn’s stalking shenanigans didn’t help either. If people do genetic testing, then please make sure you get the services you’re paying for, because they will gladly take your $$ and not deliver the goods if they can. They love to exploit desperation, like obese people will buy “diet tricks”, or people with lower self-esteem will buy “trendy” products or pay to join the “cool” club, sucker the “have-nots” into believing they can become the “haves”.

    This isn’t to say that people who do genetic testing are “desperate” or weak. We’ve already been exploited for profit against our will. Let’s make sure we get our money’s worth is what I’m saying.

    But, another point I wanted to make regarding this post, is I intentionally refrain from using the term “orphans”. The media, churches, organizations intentionally mislabel them as orphans to emotionally manipulate people into adopting children who often do already have families who love them. Or they use it to justify removing children with families and permanently severing ties with their families. If they weren’t orphans before, they become paper orphans to facilitate their adoption.

    Just some of my thoughts.

  5. It seems that Lebanon can be a crap shoot. One adoptee I know got back thousands of distant cousin relatives through 23andMe; this is basically Normal Operating Procedure for Lebanon, with its endogamy and sectarian self-segregation. Meaning, basically, everyone is more or less related, if you go back just a little bit. On the other hand, some of us have rather rare haplogroups, and in barely scratching the surface of results, have a lot to go on. My mind is still reeling. I need to process and then proceed cautiously. But I feel now that DNA testing for adoptees is the “end run” around the disempowerment of the powers that be hiding information from us. The idea of me going up to my orphanage, marching in the front door, and stating: “my real name is X; I am from Y; my story is Z; and the frickin’ world didn’t end!” is a powerful new image in my head….

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