DNA testing reveals buried family secrets

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Credit: Catherine St. Clair/The Atlantic

[T]echnology has a way of creating new consequences for old decisions. Today, some 30 million people have taken consumer DNA tests, a threshold experts have called a tipping point. People conceived through donor insemination are matching with half-siblings, tracking down their donors, forming networks and advocacy organizations. As their numbers grow, more and more of them are banding together to demand regulation of a fertility industry they say has long overlooked their concerns.

Such incidents have become so common in the past few years that they’ve earned their own term: NPE, for non-parental event. The explosion of low-cost home DNA tests has prompted a wave of unexpected parentage discoveries, connecting donor-conceived people with their biological parents and siblings without much of a rule book to guide their interactions. (The word donor rankles some, as it obscures the transactional nature of the arrangement; some prefer vendor or provider.)

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Therapists have begun to note patterns in the cycle of emotional processing. “Once the shock settles down, it looks a lot like grief,” says Eve Sturges, a marriage and family therapist who started an NPE podcast last year called Everything’s Relative after making her own NPE discovery.

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A deceptively simple question underlies these experiences: What makes someone family?… And perhaps more importantly, should a sperm bank, or even a parent, decide that for someone else?

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