Can I Use My Adopted Child’s DNA to Find His Biological Parents?

I am the American adoptive parent of a child from China who is now 8 years old. A few years ago, I began to take an interest in locating his birth parents. While most adoptions in China are technically classified as “abandonment,” there is a small but dedicated international online community of birth-family searchers, all of whom agree on two things for a successful search: Start as early as possible and use DNA databases like GEDmatch and 23Mofang to find relatives. Otherwise the likelihood of finding parents is extremely low and gets worse over time as paperwork is destroyed and memories become hazy.

Is it ethical to use my son’s DNA with one of these databases? He has expressed some interest in locating his birth family, and he has a right to understand his origins. I have enough concern about privacy, however, that DNA ancestry is not something I would choose to do for myself. This is compounded by the Chinese government’s murky use of DNA databases of its male citizens, as reported by this paper.

My child’s DNA is his own; although if I suggest genetic testing, he will agree to it, as he is too young to grasp the privacy issues at play. Yet, missing out on finding his birth parents at a formative age is also not a decision I want to make for him. What should I do? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Let me start with a couple of factual observations. First, your odds of success would seem to be extremely low in any case. The Nanchang Project, which aims to reconnect adoptees with their families in China, reported in November 2020 that 23Mofang — a Chinese company inspired, its founder says, by 23andMe — had its first successful match, identifying a person adopted into an American family from Guangdong. Given that more than 140,000 Chinese children were adopted internationally between 1999 and 2016, that’s not encouraging news. Brian Stuy, who runs the service DNAConnect, estimates there’s currently a 1 percent chance that an American adoptee would be able to locate a birth family in China through DNA testing. Many millions of Americans have submitted DNA to ancestry services — more than 22 million to AncestryDNA alone. Although it’s hard to get up-to-date information, the rate of uptake in China doesn’t seem to be at all comparable.

Second, adoptions facilitated by the Chinese government are generally not “closed” — that is, birth parents are very rarely assured privacy and anonymity. So there’s no reason to assume that your son’s prospective interest in learning about his ancestry would necessarily conflict with the privacy interests of his birth parents. In the unlikely event that they or other close biological relatives have chosen to submit their genetic data to public databases, they may well have been hoping to be found.

What about your son’s privacy interests? It’s true that there are effectively no restrictions on the Chinese government’s use of genetic data. But assuming that your son is planning to live outside China, you may not need to worry much. Besides, you can take measures to anonymize his data, submitting it in a way that would not leave him easily identified. Once you’ve got a firm sense of options, you can talk about them with your 8-year-old. Then it’s up to you whether to get out the swab, as the person whose fiduciary duty it is to protect his interests. All told, though, I would attach a slender probability both to your fears and to your hopes.

A Bonus Question

Some years ago, a college friend of mine received a lengthy prison sentence. The ordeal left him, his wife and their two kids in a bad spot financially; he was the family’s main breadwinner and legal fees used up much of their savings. His kids were not yet 10. I wanted to do something to help and hit on the idea of starting a 529 college plan for his kids. Two friends and I went about informing a larger circle of friends who might be interested in contributing. The three of us agreed on anonymity for everyone, and that there would be no pressure; give what you like, if you can. Because the contributions flow through a bank account I established for this venture, I know everyone who contributed, and thereby everyone who has not. Recently, one of my incarcerated friend’s children, who has begun to draw on his 529, reached out to me for a list of donors so that he could thank them. I don’t know him particularly well and don’t know how far the list will travel if I give it to him. Should I provide him with the names of the contributors? Some of the names absent from the list would be, in my opinion, rather conspicuous. Can I give it to him and request that he keep the list secret? It is hard for me to believe that at least his mom and dad would not somehow see it. — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

If the grateful beneficiary wants to write a letter of thanks, you can offer to send it yourself to the relevant people. Those who wish to reply to him directly may do so. Or you could contact those who contributed and ask if they want to be put in touch with the child. But if prospective donors were promised anonymity and gave — or didn’t give — under that condition, you would be breaking your word and their trust were you to reveal names.

Readers Respond

The previous newsletter’s question was from a woman whose roommate and longtime friend was currently dating an incarcerated man convicted of murdering one of his family members. Our letter writer was worried about what might happen when he was released. She wrote: “This inmate is somebody we knew when we were younger; our friend group was very affected by the murder. … I fear for her safety; I can see the red flags every day. What do I do to help?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Forgiveness, even if partial and provisional, is a worthwhile aim. Convey your concerns, in a supportive way, but try to be open as well to her views. A world without second chances is a dismal one for offenders who have served their sentences. The best outcome for the formerly incarcerated is to be reintegrated as law-abiding citizens and having a loving partner makes this more likely. Whether maintaining the relationship is what’s best for her is ultimately something she’ll have to decide for herself.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

One point that was overlooked was the letter writer saying she had her own personal trauma with the convict. In this case, she needs to take care of herself, regardless of what the roommate chooses to do. It might be best just to distance herself from the roommate and convict by asking the roommate to move out. Edward

The red flags that the letter writer sees could be signs of coercive control. The statistic of older men being less likely to commit crimes than younger ones is not reassuring in the context of coercive control and domestic violence. Of course, reintegration as law-abiding citizens is the best outcome, but the roommate should not feel any obligation to be a part of this process. Kelly

I agree that the man who has been incarcerated deserves a second chance. I have been a volunteer minister at a Florida maximum-security prison for four years. There are men that I would trust when they get out, and even let them stay with me until they get back on their feet. I hope people can give this person the benefit of forgiveness. If he reverts to his old ways, you can still forgive, but refuse to interact with him in the future. Mark

The Ethicist has missed some of the nuances of family violence here. That the person killed a family member is a red flag for them as a domestic-violence perpetrator, though it’s hard to say without knowing more of the details. Family violence is often well hidden, so conviction and recidivism data doesn’t necessarily provide a good insight either. Felicity

When the man in prison gets out, early or not, this seems like the perfect opportunity to attempt restorative justice. It will require profound and complete honesty on the parts of all. If an honest attempt fails, perhaps you will have to give up your childhood friend. Diane

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected].

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