Just a few days ago, I did the hardest thing I had ever done: I officiated my father’s funeral. Hundreds of friends, colleagues, and students of my dad came, many of whom remembered me only as a very young child. Many of these people commented, to my mom or to me, what a shock it was for them to see me: I am a dead ringer for my father, especially in my now short haircut that resembles his own haircut when he was in the army. The striking resemblance is hard to ignore. I took a lot of pride in these comments. It is wonderful to resemble my precious dad, who was the best person on Earth, and if I ever live up to be a tenth of the person he was, I’ll be very proud of myself.
Sleepless and weeping, I just read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s column in the New York Times from 2022, in which he applies an ethical lens to two letters written by adopted adults who want to contact their birth families. At the time these people were adopted, it was customary to keep their provenance secret from them, with a possible revelation (or not) when they came of age. Consequently, people who now, thanks to 23andMe and similar platforms have access to their genetic makeup, can now more easily find their birth families, which opens up lots of complicated moral dilemmas.
As regular readers know, I’m an adoptive mother. My wonderful son is the light of my life and the best thing that ever happened to me and my partner, as well as to our parents. I’ve written about our adoption journey and its implications for my worldview here, here, here, and here. The gold standard in current adoptions is open adoption, in which the child and the adoptive family know the birth family and vice versa. Some birth parents choose to be in touch and involved. Some do not. How people handle the immense pain of placing a child for adoption is profoundly individualized and should be respected as such. But at least one’s biological origins are never a shameful secret that needs to be hidden from them, awaiting a big revelation.
This newer adoption regime is not without its complications, and works differently for different families, but current science widely considers it significantly superior to closed adoption. The main argument for it is this: people are naturally drawn to their biological provenance. It is deeply important to them. In the first few days we spent with our son as a newborn, during the long, exhausting, and yet precious nights of hourly feedings, I was drawn to reading Charles Dickens novels, and remember being struck by the centrality of the mystery of provenance in so many of them: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit. Dickens himself had great interest in this issue, as one of the key founders and benefactors of the Foundlings Hospital. He published an article about it in 1853 titled Received, A Blank Child. The psychological distress of not knowing who one is, where one came from–especially in the rigidly stratified Victorian era–permeates Dickens’ writing. At the time, I also encountered many adult adoptees who so deeply resented the secrecy of their own adoption that they came to oppose adoption altogether, alongside many birth mothers who feel that the secrecy and shame surrounding the process created sickening opportunities for pressuring them to place their children for adoption. While anyone is entitled to their opinions, which are naturally shaped by one’s own life experiences, I wonder if the distressing legacy of unscrupulous closed adoptions is unfairly skewing these folks’ view of a much-transformed (and for the better) adoption landscape.
In his sensitive responses to the adult adoptees, I noticed that Appiah, who is characteristically careful with his terminology, does not use the terms “right” or “birthright” to know one’s biological origins. I’m not super versed in the jargon of philosophical rights theory, and the word “right” means different things to different people. But it does strike me that knowing who your birth family was is deeply important to many people and it makes a lot of sense to me that it does. Regular readers know I’m very far from a biology determinist, and even I was surprised by how gratifying I found it to be physically compared to my beloved father. It was deeply meaningful and brought me unexpected comfort in this devastating time. At the same time, It’s clear to me that even though people have a “right” to know their provenance, as they do other aspects of their biology, these discoveries do not necessarily make things better for them. A 2017 study by Lebowitz et al. highlights some significant downsides: today’s technologies, which give people access to a plethora of information about their genetics, make them overestimate the impact of their predisposed genetic properties and thus makes them pessimistic about their physical and mental health–despite what we know about epigenetics and the considerable impact of environment.
All these threads boil down to this: knowing things about your own genetic makeup, including about your birth family, has advantages and drawbacks, and plays out differently for different people. Thing is: good or bad, simple or fraught, freeing or burdensome–knowledge about your DNA is now easily available and secrets are near impossible to keep. Law and policy in a variety of areas–including family law and criminal law, two fields I’m deeply interested in–must be shaped with the understanding that the cat is out of the bag.
I think the idea that our deepest and most unsavory secrets will come to light–and living with the inevitability of discovery–looms large in our collective nightmares. In Clarissa Pinkola Estés book Women Who Run with the Wolves (now experiencing a well-deserved renaissance), she tells the story of a golden-haired woman murdered by a spurned lover and buried near a river. In time, reeds resembling her beautiful tresses grow over her grave and sing the song of her murder and her killer’s name. It’s no coincidence that many cultures feature similar stories. The wonderful Argentinian film noir Los Tallos Amargos is based on the same plot point. The new, democratized access to DNA testing has ushered an age in which these deeply embedded cultural fears are here.
In the adoption field, this means that birthparents and adoptive parents have to be very clearly apprised of the fact that their child will have access to information about their provenance. This is true for closed adoptions, open adoptions, and even kin adoptions to hide all kinds of unsavory family secrets. DNA testing services are here and in wide usage, and so whatever you think you are hiding about a child’s biology–to protect them, to protect yourself, whatever the reason–will come to light. Whatever role you play in the adoption triangle, you have to play it with the understanding that you have no control over whether, or when, the facts will come to light. This can cause a lot of distress and fear, but it is nonetheless true.
In the criminal justice field, it means that much of the concern about invasive DNA testing methods is now moot, whether positive or not, given their increasing availability and sophistication and decreasing costs. I see these concerns raised by privacy advocates and racial justice advocates. Honestly, it seems a bit ridiculous to resent the role that private DNA testing services and familial DNA testing played in unveiling and prosecuting California’s most heinous murderer and rapist, or to begrudge the relief that the current wave of cracking cold cases through novel uses of DNA technology brings to families even decades after the crime. In 2013, Charles MacLean called for accelerating another helpful DNA-based tool: producing an artist’s rendering of a perpetrator’s face based on an ancestry analysis of their DNA, which raised concerns about AI-generated over-racialized portrayals of perpetrators. Regardless of where you stand on the range between enthusiasm and concern about these technologies, they are here now and have helped crack at least one horrendous cold case.
This also means that some arguments about rehabilitation-versus-retribution are going to be skewed by our increased knowledge about whether and how people can change. In 2005, the field of juvenile justice was rocked by new insights from neuroimaging and developmental psychology about the malleability of the adolescent brain, leading to many welcome enlightened developments regarding the sentencing of people for crimes they committed at a young age. But what about kids who, from a very young age, present symptoms of what might later be diagnosed as psychopathy? In this piece, Angela Lashbrook looks at a difficult paradox we face now: on one hand, we want to exercise extreme caution before labeling children as psychopaths, opting instead for the still scary, but perhaps less so, diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. On the other hand, it now turns out that the earlier the psychopathy diagnosis, the easier it is to do something about it, both clinically and through environmental redirection; adult psychopaths are notoriously resistant to any treatment or remediation. But talking about the advantages and drawbacks of labeling people with a diagnosis we now have the scientific means to determine they actually have is moot in an era of accelerated discovery and decreasing costs.
I would like to see more scholarship and policymaking in these areas leave behind the “pros and cons” discussions about disclosures, and move toward the more important question: how are we to shape our personal lives and public policies knowing that, whether we like it or not, genetic knowledge is widely available? How do we shift the conversation from talking about the virtues of keeping secrets that are impossible to keep toward framing the validity and immutability of these revelations in a scientifically valid way? Rather than trembling in fear of discoveries that will shake up our self perceptions and our families, wouldn’t it be better if we thought about the extent to which these discoveries have the power to shape our lives, and the varying degrees of freedom to shape our futures even as we know more about our pasts and presents?