DNA sequence

DNA sequence

Adult adoptees are turning to DNA tests and social media to find biological family members and trace their roots: balancing privacy with the need to know.
Adult adoptees looking for their birth parents have often faced significant challenges, especially in states with sealed records. But there’s a powerful new tool: DNA tests. The growing interest in using DNA samples to trace family roots is translating into an ever larger trove of information adoptees can tap into for their own more immediate family questions. The process can be frustrating and emotionally challenging, and connections revealed can raise new and unwelcome questions for both adoptees and their biological families: Using DNA to help adoptees find out with whom they share a genetic link.


  • Deborah Riley Executive director, The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc.
  • Bennett Greenspan CEO, Family Tree DNA
  • Kimberly Leighton Assistant Professor of Philosophy at American University


  • 10:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Some genealogists have embraced DNA testing as one way to find family roots. Their interest is building a valuable new trove of information some adult adoptees have found useful. Joining me to talk about DNA tests and adoptees searching for biological families: Deborah Riley of The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc., Kimberly Leighton of American University and, joining us from a studio at KUHF in Houston, Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA.

  • 10:07:47

    MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure many of you are interested in our topic this morning. Join us in just a little while. You can call us on the phone. You can send your email, post on Facebook or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.

  • 10:08:09

    PROF. KIMBERLY LEIGHTONGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:08:10

    MS. DEBORAH RILEYGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:08:11

    MR. BENNETT GREENSPANAnd good morning, Diane, and...

  • 10:08:13

    REHMGood to see you all. Thank you. Debbie, I'll start with you. Sealed records have sort of been the way that states have gone for years and years. There's new thinking about that now.

  • 10:08:32

    RILEYWell, there is. Since 1947, adoptees have been denied open access to their records. And we see a shift in adoption practice from secrecy now to more openness, and what we're observing across the country is a movement that, I think, is directed by adoptees in an effort to have access to their original birth certificates. And we know now that about seven states in the United States have changed the laws in regarding to openness, the most recent in Illinois.

  • 10:09:11

    REHMAnd, of course, this digital revolution surely is having an effect on that.

  • 10:09:18

    RILEYAbsolutely. We're seeing that in our practice at CASE and certainly in other organizations in -- across the country, that adoptees and birth family members and other in the extended network are using social media as a way to make these connections.

  • 10:09:35

    REHMSo I know that there are different state laws, and your organization provides some support for individuals beginning a search.

  • 10:09:48

    RILEYAbsolutely. You know, these searches -- first, an emotional one, and then more of the physical connections. And at CASE, we believe very strongly that as the individuals proceed down this course of openness that there needs to be some very structured supports in navigating, I think, what can be a tenuous journey.

  • 10:10:10

    REHMBut if you've got states with sealed records, what are their options?

  • 10:10:18

    RILEYWell, I think what you're seeing is the option is to proceed through social media and other avenues and as we will be getting into talking more about this issue of DNA testing.

  • 10:10:29

    REHMBennett Greenspan, talk about these DNA tests for adoptees. How does it work?

  • 10:10:37

    GREENSPANWell, there are three primary DNA tests that are used by adoptees who are looking for family. You know, probably in order of value, the Y chromosome test for a male can allow an individual to find a surname of his biological father. It doesn't mean that he's found his biological father, but he may have found the specific surname. And then in conjunction with genealogical records and knowing where he was born, he can kind of put it all together.

  • 10:11:09

    GREENSPANAnd we have many customers who have done that. Autosomal DNA testing, which is, in effect, the DNA that we get from our mother and father, can confirm when an individual has found a biological full sibling or a half-sibling or a first or second cousin, which can also allow the individual to segue and find his actual family. And probably the weakest of the three DNA tools would be the mitochondria DNA, which is not terribly precise. But the other two seem to be working wonderfully for adoptees today.

  • 10:11:45

    REHMHow much does all this cost?

  • 10:11:50

    GREENSPANDNA testing -- if someone is adopted and wants to put together a budget, I would say you're looking at between $250 and $400 to do the testing and get yourself into a perpetual database that will allow you to get an email every time you have a DNA or genetic match. And so, once you become part of a DNA database, it's a matter of waiting. As the databases grow, your likelihood of finding a genetic connection increase exponentially.

  • 10:12:23

    REHMAnd how long does this whole process take?

  • 10:12:29

    GREENSPANDNA testing takes from the time that an individual gets their DNA test kit until they get their results back. It's probably four or five weeks, and then you have the opportunity...

  • 10:12:38


  • 10:12:39

    GREENSPAN...to peruse, you know, the database, see who your matches are. And then that waiting game can start, or you may get a direct hit right away.

  • 10:12:49

    REHMHow many people would you say are currently registered on these databases?

  • 10:12:59

    GREENSPANSeems that about 500,000 people have been DNA tested so far and are in databases. Our database at Family Tree DNA has about 360,000 genealogical records or individuals. And we're starting to find that about somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 percent of all adoptees who test are -- were able to match those men with a biological surname today, and that number is getting higher and higher.

  • 10:13:32

    REHMAnd, just briefly, how did they do -- how do you do the testing?

  • 10:13:40

    GREENSPANWe use what's called a buccal scrape. It's a cheek scrape. It's like taking a swab and scraping the inside of your mouth. So there's no blood involved. It's not invasive. It's very easy. You do it in the privacy of your own home. Send the DNA test kit back to us, and then we extract the DNA, run the sample, put it in our database, at which point we create a personal record for the individual so that you can see the names and email addresses of the people that you match within the system.

  • 10:14:11

    REHMBennett Greenspan, he's with Family Tree DNA. Deborah Riley is with The Center for Adoption Support and Education. Kimberly Leighton, turning to you, in one case, at least reported in The New York Times, someone found a third cousin. What use is that?

  • 10:14:38

    LEIGHTONWell, I think this opens up a large -- larger question, which is, what do we think family is? And I think adoptees who are using these services go in already hoping that they're going to find some kind of...

  • 10:14:52


  • 10:14:53

    LEIGHTON...some kind of connection. And it raises a lot of questions about what the ethical issues here are. And that's probably where I would want to start, in some ways, in this conversation because, in a contemporary situation, when we have closed records, the women who gave up their children for adoption were, in many ways, promised confidentiality. So we have to think about -- as much as we like the happy ending story that these searches seem to promise, we do have to raise, at the first level, the ethical question of what about these women's or men's or larger families' right to privacy.

  • 10:15:31

    REHMSo, in addition to looking at the adoptee's right to search and indeed maybe find, you're concerned about those who have given up their children.

  • 10:15:46

    LEIGHTONYes. We never really know the full story of why someone has relinquished a child, and we can assume it wasn't an easy choice, no matter what. And to enter -- anyone who enters a search has to enter that process knowing that they don't know what happened. They don't know who's been told. They don't know what the circumstances were. And to find a third cousin and to begin a search backwards that way opens up the possibility that you're presenting yourself to family members who have no idea that this woman might have even been pregnant.

  • 10:16:21

    LEIGHTONSo it's not simply the same as doing a genealogy. When adoptees go searching, they're opening up Pandora's boxes of other people's lives.

  • 10:16:31

    REHMWhat do you think about that, Debbie?

  • 10:16:33

    RILEYWell, I want to stress that I -- that what, I think, is the foundation of this is the right to know. And, you know, from an adoptee's perspective is not having access to that human right, to really know where you came from. You know, once a young girl that I was working with said, it's not fair that I can't know where I came from, where certain traits are from or who I look like. And I think what, you know, we're speaking about now is maybe a level of desperation of wanting connections and wanting to find those that are a part of who you are.

  • 10:17:07

    RILEYAnd so then you do make this connection to the fourth generation. And I guess I would like to see more access to open records. I think that adoption isn't just a frozen piece of time, and I respect what you're sharing in regards to, you know, promised confidentiality. But people change, you know. And when birth moms make that decision at that point in time, 10 years later, they may not want confidentiality. They very much might want to have those connections with the child that they relinquished, as well as the adoptee's desire to have those connections.

  • 10:17:41

    REHMDo you agree with that, Kim?

  • 10:17:43

    LEIGHTONWell, I agree, and I disagree as a good philosopher would. I don't think that we should -- we need to take the avenue of supporting arguments for opening records or having the option of open adoption, which is different than demanding open adoption. I think we can get to that argument without having to presume there is a right to know. We can talk more about this throughout the hour, but there are not good arguments supporting this as a natural human right, the right to know.

  • 10:18:16

    LEIGHTONWe can explore the ways in which having the choice of open adoption allows some women, who want to relinquish children, that as an option, and it allows children who are adopted through that the option. But it also leaves us the option of other means.

  • 10:18:33

    REHMKimberly Leighton, assistant professor of philosophy at the American University. Do join us. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 10:20:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about adoption, a new option for adoptees to search for family roots using DNA. But, of course, it brings into the question the right to know on the part of the adoptee, the willingness for that adoptee to know on the right of the biological parent. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850, your email to drshow@wamu.org. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter.

  • 10:20:53

    REHMDeborah Riley is here. She is executive director of the Center for Adoption Support and Education. Bennett Greenspan is joining us from KUHF in Houston. Also here in the studio, Kimberly Leighton, assistant professor of philosophy at American University. And here's an email for you, Bennett, from Lisa here in D.C., "Please ask how a female can use the database to find information. Isn't it impossible to really use these tests for women because the results are too vague?"

  • 10:21:42

    GREENSPANWell, the good news is the answer to that question is no. The results are not too vague. We've built a product called the Family Finder, which uses recombinant DNA, which will allow a woman to match up successfully to either other women or to men that they share a parent or a grandparent or a great-grandparent with. And so, consequently, while several years ago women were kind of the odd person out in this game because empty DNA or female inherited DNA isn't precise enough using autosomal DNA, women are now completely in the game and are not excluded at all.

  • 10:22:27

    REHMInteresting. All right. Turning back to you, Kimberly Leighton, you talked about your concern regarding the families, the birth mother. You're an adoptee yourself. Tell us about your own search.

  • 10:22:46

    LEIGHTONWell, I'm in that middle age where I was old enough to access some recent technologies, which helped assist me. I did search for my birth mother, and I did find my birth mother, which, for many adoptees, they consider that a really fortunate experience. And my life has only been improved certainly knowing this woman and knowing her story and developing a relationship with her. But it also gave me a sense, Diane, that the search doesn't solve every question we have about who we are and what our lives will hold in store for us. Many adoptees, what they really want is they want a story.

  • 10:23:26

    LEIGHTONThey want to know what the narrative was that preceded them and that determined why they were relinquished. Developing an ongoing relationship with a new family member is always, always challenging. And I think when we go through expectation -- and I wonder how Bennett handles the more psychological aspects, as well as the ethical ones, of searching -- because many adoptees -- and Debbie can speak to this -- when they do find, they find more complicated situations than they expected. And...

  • 10:24:01

    REHMBennett, do you get into that aspect of it?

  • 10:24:06

    GREENSPANWell, as a matter of fact, Diane, we do get into it, but we don't just get into it with the adoptees. Quite often, we tests two known first cousins or two known second cousins, and they don't match each other. And they should match each other. And so in those cases, we're dealing with non-paternal events, and so there are some, so to speak, grief counseling or some explanations that the people want. When we deal with adoptees, we're dealing with a similar situation.

  • 10:24:37

    GREENSPANBut adoptees are also quite interested in finding -- we find their biological family because they have questions about medical information that they feel like they've been cut off from. And even if they don't know their biological parents or never knew their biological parents, they feel like they have the right to know what their -- what's in store for them coming down the pipe in the future, which would be -- which would have been passed on to them from their, you know, from their biological parents. And so we really run the gamut with customers.

  • 10:25:12

    REHMOf course, in this day and age, Debbie, of sperm banks, how do you deal with that when you're trying to find your original biological parent in looking for medical information or whatever when that sperm bank donor may have donated absolutely under conditions of privacy?

  • 10:25:45

    RILEYWell, I think this just creates another layer. And I'm going to defer to Kimberly on this, Kim, because we've had some discussions prior to the show, and I think she can shed some light on this.

  • 10:25:54

    LEIGHTONYeah. There's a fascinating conversation going on right now between members of the adoption community and what people are calling the ongoing movement of the donor conceived. And, in fact, people who are now becoming adults because people -- sperm donation has gone on long enough that there's a large number of people who know that they were donor conceived and are over 18. And they are actually taking much of the language of the right to know from the adoption community and using it to make an argument that they, too, like adoptees, have a right to know.

  • 10:26:32

    LEIGHTONAnd this is being used very effectively across Europe, Australia. A recent decision in Canada -- British Columbia is the first part of Canada that has determined that they will no longer allow anonymous sperm and egg donation based on the very arguments that adoptees have made. Canada has no secrecy in adoption. They do not allow closed adoption.

  • 10:26:56

    REHMBut what about France? Hasn't France sealed its records?

  • 10:27:01

    LEIGHTONFrance is a really interesting counter-example in many ways. They want to maintain sealed records, and they want to maintain the option of anonymous sperm and egg donation, unlike most of Europe. And you ask, well, why? And for them, in the history of adoption and relinquishment in France, the French have encouraged the option of anonymous adoption. And what anonymous adoption is, it allows women to -- like a Baby Moses law -- to leave a child at an adoption agency or some other facility with no record of her name.

  • 10:27:38

    LEIGHTONAnd the French culture, in many ways, has endorsed this as an alternative to abortion. And so one of the worries in France is that, if we have anonymous egg and sperm donation and if we push the right to know, it will limit women's choices in such a way that it would encourage abortion. And while I don't necessarily agree with that as a great argument around abortion and anti-abortion, I do think we need to think about the feminist issue of women's choices. And if we are to say all adoption has to be open, it does affect women's reproductive choice.

  • 10:28:19

    REHMInteresting. Debbie, surely, when people begin the search, there's a lot of ambivalence in their minds. Talk about how they sort of approach this. Do they really want to find out, or do they begin fairly tentatively?

  • 10:28:41

    RILEYI think sometimes it's tentative. And, certainly, what we're seeing in practice is it's happening a lot earlier now, where we're working with young teenagers who are really considering these connections and having this visceral need to find, again, as Kimberly, from an adoptee's perspective, had done. You know, where did I come from? I think there's a lot of the ambivalence about what will I find? What are the truths? Did my adoptive family tell me the truth about the information that they did have?

  • 10:29:13

    RILEYIf I find my birth family, will they reject me yet once again? Or this fantasy that they're this incredible, you know, group of people that are so different from my adoptive family, this fantasy...

  • 10:29:28

    REHMAnd better, yeah.

  • 10:29:29

    RILEYAnd better. Yeah. They'll make me eat my peas at dinner, you know, that, you know, I want to go run off in the sunset with them. I think it's very, very complicated, and I think that's why both Kimberly and I are advocating. And I appreciate what Bennett is saying, that there's some counseling. I have some concerns what that counseling looks like. And because we're seeing a younger generation of adoptees wanting to search, they really need some adult supervision and support in this endeavor. And I don't think that's going to happen through this DNA process.

  • 10:30:04

    LEIGHTONThe New York Times article you referred to earlier had an interesting short example. It wasn't the main story. And as this man sort of told his story about using a DNA search to find a third cousin, he -- they met him with welcome, open arms until they found out he was adopted. The third cousins, at first, thought this was just your basic genealogical search -- hey, I found out you and I are related -- as people do to find out that who was in the Civil War they were related to and so on. They didn't know he was adopted. When he told them he was adopted, they backed off completely.

  • 10:30:45

    LEIGHTONAnd I think what this tells us is that there's more to searching and finding out who our biological relatives are. In the case of adoption, it's a more complicated situation than, for instance, trying to find out who am I related to who was in the Civil War.

  • 10:31:02


  • 10:31:03

    GREENSPANWell, first of all, I think that any adoptee that's listening or anyone who's listening who wants to gain a much broader understanding of what's involved for an adoptee, both emotionally as well as testing-wise, should visit a website called DNA Testing Adviser, which was put together by an adoptee who found his biological mother after a few years of searching while he was in his mid-30s, but then spent 26 years to find his biological father's family.

  • 10:31:43

    GREENSPANHe's Mr. Richard Hill, who was actually featured in a Wall Street Journal article in 2009 after he had successfully found his biological father's family, has devoted a lot of time and has thought about these issues as an adoptee, not as a philosopher, not as an advocate, other than an advocate who comes from the adopted community. And he found some information that allowed him to put many things to rest.

  • 10:32:17

    GREENSPANHe found biological half-siblings. He understands now why he was given up for adoption, and he's had a lot of closure. And so, for him, this has been a very interesting and meaningful journey. And because Richard is old enough to be retired at this point, he spent a lot of time over the last several years thinking about this and putting together a website to help.

  • 10:32:41

    REHMBennett Greenspan. He's the executive director of Family Tree DNA. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now. I'd like to hear from some of our callers. Let's go first to Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Ed. You're on the air.

  • 10:33:09

    EDGood morning, Diane. How are you?

  • 10:33:10

    REHMI'm fine. Thank you, sir.

  • 10:33:13

    EDWe love your show...

  • 10:33:14

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:33:14

    ED...and I just wanted to tell you that I'm so nervous about making this call, that I have a beautiful, young 8-year-old girl sitting next to me, holding my hand.

  • 10:33:22

    REHMOh. What is her name?

  • 10:33:26

    EDThis is Eva. (sp?) Say hello.

  • 10:33:28


  • 10:33:28

    REHMHi, Eva. All right. Go right ahead, Ed.

  • 10:33:32

    EDA couple of -- Ian, turn that off. That's my second son, and I'll get to that in a second. A couple of years ago, my mother -- I'm adopted, and my mother came to me with a letter in her hand. She was very disconcerted. She had a letter in her hand that said that my adoptive mother had wanted to make contact with me. And prior to that, a couple of years ago, I had gotten some bad information that said that my adoptive mother and father passed away.

  • 10:34:02

    EDSo my mother very, very, very nervously handed me this letter. And my mother, my adoptive mother is the greatest woman. My father is the greatest father that a man could ever have and taught me how to be a parent. But it really shook her up, and it shook me up for a while. And my immediate reaction was I don't want to know, throw the letter away. And I -- we went with that plan for a little while.

  • 10:34:26

    EDAnd then a little while later, I was contacted again. And I agreed to meet this woman at a local Starbucks in Mount Washington. We set up the day. My nerves were shot for days. I was very, very upset. When the day finally came and I went there, she didn't show up. She left me hanging. And I heard earlier one of your -- the woman who's with you. I forgot her name. I'm very sorry about that.

  • 10:34:57

    EDShe had said that what about the rights -- woman's rights? What about my rights, and what about my peace of mind and my mental stability? I mean, where does that figure in?

  • 10:35:08

    REHMIt certainly is a good question. What do you think about that, Debbie?

  • 10:35:15

    RILEYWell, I think what you're sharing are the complexities that we're addressing this morning and all of the unknowns and the uncertainties as you embark upon this journey. And, you know, I think we're talking about the complexities that are inherent in adoption. And what you share is a very sad, hurtful experience and one that we wish we could sometimes protect those connected to adoption. You know, these things happen, and I think that's why...

  • 10:35:50


  • 10:35:50

    RILEY...I'm advocating that there is support as you embark upon, you know, this process.

  • 10:35:56

    REHMIt's interesting. I have an email here from Larry, who says, "I'm an adult adoptee. I sometimes wonder what the expectations are of many adoptees. I, too, had fantasies about my birth family, what my life would have been like had I been left with them. When I reconnected with my birth family, it was not an Oprah moment. I believe now that my not growing up in that family was a gift. I left a family that was so dysfunctional I probably would not have had any of the advantages my loving adoptive parents provided me."

  • 10:36:47

    LEIGHTONYeah. I mean, we have two really different stories there...

  • 10:36:49


  • 10:36:50

    LEIGHTON...with the caller and with the email writer, and I think that just shows us that no family story, from beginning to end, is a straight-shot, happy tale. There are many ways in which children are conceived by their biological parents, who then raised them, where the story is complicated as well. So we don't -- our origins always, I think, are complicated. And one thing I would like to add as a -- as an adoptee is we often think of the adoptee as someone who doesn't know, as if that's a position of luck. And, actually, being adopted, for me, has been a place of opportunity.

  • 10:37:31

    REHMKimberly Leighton, assistant professor of philosophy at American University. When we come back, more of your calls and questions. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. We have, as you can imagine, many callers, many emails. Here is one from Andy. And Andy says, "I'm an adoptee. And while I would like to know and say thank you to the family that put me up for adoption, I really want to know my medical history. That blank makes me feel uncomfortable as I get older and raise a family of my own. You can keep sealed records, but access to medical data, even in anonymity, would be beneficial. Kimberly, what do you think?

  • 10:40:54

    LEIGHTONWell, I have sympathy with that argument, and I think that, as genetic testing technology advances, we will have better testing that doesn't require actually having to contact biological family members for that information. It's called personalized genetic medicine, and it's, in many ways, the diagnosis of the future.

  • 10:41:18

    REHMHow often is the issue of medical health, any health records, Debbie, at the start of a person's search?

  • 10:41:29

    RILEYI think it's a fairly consistent issue that drives, oftentimes, the need to search. And I -- you know, what I want to share is I'm an adoptive parent as well, and I'm thinking about what, you know, Andy is saying. And for my son, I want him to be able to have this medical access. And, you know, we're seeing, again, a lot with the younger adoptees -- you think about what happens in high school, you know, classes where they're talking about genetics and all these medical issues.

  • 10:41:59

    RILEYAnd the kids are coming back in and saying, you know, I have a right to know. You know, do I carry this gene? So I guess Kim and I might disagree about this, but from an adoptive parent perspective, an adoptive professional, I kind of concur with Andy with this.

  • 10:42:14


  • 10:42:15

    LEIGHTONWell, I absolutely understand people's -- especially parents' interest in wanting to provide the best medical treatment and care they can to their children. On the other hand, almost every geneticist I've ever talked with thinks that our expectations about what genetic information can give us about health risks are overblown. Our expectations are overblown, and that the information -- there's something called epigenetics.

  • 10:42:45

    LEIGHTONAnd how our genetics end up playing out in our lives, going back to nature versus nurture, really depends on what we eat, how much we sleep and so on. So the genetics themselves tell us little. And those who are interested in the politics of these issues say the more we focus on genetics as the source of health and medicine, the less we actually focus on more of those nurture issues of the conditions of life that lead to disease.

  • 10:43:11

    REHMAnd here's a question for you, Bennett. "How can the DNA base be 300,000? Did all these persons agree to have their DNA in these databases? Is DNA data not protected medical records?"

  • 10:43:34

    GREENSPANWell, you've asked many questions there. First of all, we've been doing DNA testing for genealogy for 12 years, so our database is a combination of people who have been testing over the last decade primarily for genealogical purposes. And with our company, we have -- we give everyone the opportunity to sign a release form, which says that if we find someone who is a close genetic match to you, it's OK for us to share their name and their email address with you and vice versa. So it's a mutual ops-in.

  • 10:44:10

    GREENSPANAll of that information, the match list, et cetera, et cetera, are protected behind a user ID and a password firewall so that the information is secure. And that's something that's very important to us, obviously, because we've built our company around the concept of privacy and confidentiality. At the same time, people who have matches want to know who those matches are so they can exchange genealogical information.

  • 10:44:39

    GREENSPANAnd a subset of that is the adopted market, which is, of course, totally cut off from their biological history and their genealogical and genetic history, and they want to reclaim that. However, at our company, we say -- and we say this very, very directly -- if you don't want to know the answer to the question, don't ask the question.

  • 10:45:00

    REHMAll right. And, Kim, you want to comment.

  • 10:45:03

    LEIGHTONYeah. I think on the other side of the right to know is also the right not to know and the right not to be known. And I appreciate that Bennett's company does seek out the consent of these individuals who do genealogical research. But, clearly, no adoptee would go to these services, use these services if these people also weren't genetically related to other people, right? So one person's genetic information, if I give it to you, you actually learn about people who are related to me as well. Do they consent?

  • 10:45:37

    LEIGHTONThere's no finite number of people involved here. It's an infinite number of people. And if I learn information about you, I learn information about your brother and your sister, your mother and your half-cousin. So consent is a very narrow concept. It applies to individuals and individual decision making much better than it does to these more related relational issues.

  • 10:46:02

    REHMAnd we have a caller to that effect. Kaye in Normal, Ill., good morning. You're on the air.

  • 10:46:11

    KAYEGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 10:46:13


  • 10:46:14

    KAYEI want to start by saying that I would like to be an advocate for a mother who learned -- well, I recently learned that she gave up a child just after high school. And she has been contacted -- or she had contacted our family in kind of a disruptive way. And I want to start also by saying that I enjoy my sister very much (unintelligible) and I'm very glad to know her.

  • 10:46:45

    KAYEHowever, her presence in our life has caused my mother a lot of grief and pain just because it was a very, very painful time for her, a very painful experience that she did not share with us, my brother or I, did not share with sisters and brothers or her family. Nobody knew. And I just feel as though there should be some buffer system in place so we -- you know, unsuspecting people, who have put a very painful memory behind them, are not confronted with it 40 years later, you know, unsuspectedly.

  • 10:47:28


  • 10:47:29

    RILEYWell, you know, I -- again, you know, we are hearing other aspects of this...

  • 10:47:34

    REHMSure, of course.

  • 10:47:35

    RILEY...conundrum. And what we do have in many states is the issue of confidential intermediary. And I think that can protect some of these issues that you are describing where someone is intervening in a confidential way in approaching those that are trying to make these connections. And I don't know what Kim wants to say about that.

  • 10:48:00

    LEIGHTONWell, I certainly think that if we are going to open up the possibility of opening formerly closed records, there has to be a policy mechanism in place to help people through this. And simply giving people information and a name and a phone number can open up these problematic searches into these unhappy situations. It's like stepping into a stream, Diane. When you go on an adoption search, you're not finding a static piece of information. You're stepping into an ongoing life of an infinite number of people.

  • 10:48:37

    REHMHere's an email from Kim, who says, "I recently watched a show on public television about sperm bank children. They won -- pardon me -- they won a lawsuit against a sperm bank. The premise of the lawsuit was the child's medical necessity trumps the parents' right to privacy." Do you know about this suit, Debbie?

  • 10:49:10

    RILEYI'm not aware of that. Kim?

  • 10:49:13

    REHMWhat about that, Kim?

  • 10:49:15

    LEIGHTONWell, I think this is just one of the angles, and of the arguments being made, to end anonymous sperm and egg donation. So it -- there have been a number of cases, particularly in Europe, where people have said that they had a fundamental interest in either privacy or family that was being violated on a human rights level. The United Nations Convention for the Rights of Children has also been used. That document has been used to say that children do have these rights to certain kinds of information.

  • 10:49:48

    LEIGHTONAnd I think what's unfortunate is that, with each of these different arguments, we put more emphasis on the definition of family and the definition of health as being so determined by genetics. And as we know, family is a product of relationships and law.

  • 10:50:06


  • 10:50:06

    LEIGHTONAnd health is a product of so many factors that the emphasis on genetics, I think, has its own ethical harm involved.

  • 10:50:14

    REHMBennett, what's your reaction?

  • 10:50:17

    GREENSPANWell, I think the idea of this confidential intermediary is absolutely a necessity. And as the number of adoptees start using new genetic tools, which are either available today or are right around the corner, I think this is going to be an absolute necessity. Also, I think that we could probably, in 2012 -- we can probably officially say that the term anonymous sperm donor is probably an oxymoron today.

  • 10:50:47

    REHMI wonder...

  • 10:50:47

    GREENSPANAnd I think that people need to remember that.

  • 10:50:49

    REHMI wonder if all of this could perhaps slow down the rate of giving up children for adoption, that women might not want to take that risk again of being found.

  • 10:51:10

    LEIGHTONYeah. And I think it also opens up, on the other side, the risk that adoptive parents -- we'll go back to the 1950s and '40s when adoptive parents actually did not tell their children that they were adopted.

  • 10:51:23


  • 10:51:24

    LEIGHTONThe more emphasis that we put on genetics in these debates about sperm donation, often the donor is actually called a father, your sperm father. And for many families who create children using either adoption or sperm and egg donation, they consider themselves the mother and father of these children. And studies have shown -- and this is very hard to study -- that it's something like 80 percent of parents who use third-party egg and sperm -- not from that couple -- never tell the child that the child was conceived using a third-party...

  • 10:52:00

    REHMI see. I see.

  • 10:52:01

    LEIGHTON...egg and sperm, in part, because they feel de-legitimized. So I think we'll go to both things, that pregnant women will be reluctant to take the option of adoption. We don't know the story of their pregnancy. And, on the other hand, those who adopt and those who use egg and sperm donation will become more reluctant to be open about it

  • 10:52:20

    REHMGo ahead, Debbie.

  • 10:52:21

    RILEYI guess my question would be to Kim. We're seeing, though, more open adoptions in the United States, so I don't agree that birth parents will not look at adoption as an option when they're making and wanting and requesting an open adoption plan.

  • 10:52:41

    LEIGHTONWell, I think that -- I certainly think that the option of open adoption is a very attractive one, and it's often very empowering for women who give up their children. They don't want to feel like they've lost contact and that they've lost everything. And I do think, on the other hand, that the increase in the use of assisted reproductive technologies has made more people who would have adopt actually able to use reproductive assistance to have children. So it's going to -- I think the openness issue and the closed issue is coming out more on the reproductive assistance side.

  • 10:53:15

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." As you all know -- and I'm sure you perhaps know someone who's adopted a child from China. We have a question. Is there any chance of children from China finding those birth families, Debbie?

  • 10:53:39

    RILEYThat's an interesting question, one that we're seeing a lot of movement, and I think it's being driven by the adult adoptees who've been adopted from China, that there's much more success in finding birth families inter-country adoption. It was just -- excuse me -- represented in The Washington Post, I think, Sunday, where a young Russian child adopted with her family was able to be reunited with her birth mom in Russia. So to this mom that's asking you this question, there are many possibilities, I think, on the horizon in inter-country adoption.

  • 10:54:16

    REHMIs Russia different from China however?

  • 10:54:22

    RILEYI'm not sure it's different. I think the complexities of search and reunion in inter-country adoption is one that we're just beginning to learn more about and move into. And it's very complex because of the laws and the way that adoptions occur in inter-country adoption.

  • 10:54:40

    REHMAll right. We'll take one last call from Pensacola, Fla. Good morning, Renee.

  • 10:54:47

    RENEEHi, Diane. I love your show, and I'm so glad you picked it up here.

  • 10:54:49

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:54:51

    RENEEI am a grandmother of a child who was given up for adoption almost two years ago. My son is her father. We had an absolutely wonderful adoption experience, although I didn't know about it till it was all over with. But part of the experience that made it so beautiful was that Catholic Charities arranged for me and my husband, extended family to see this little child because the family was open to letting her know that she's adopted.

  • 10:55:14

    RENEEThey had another one -- a little child that was adopted. But what I absolutely loved is that the needs of the adopted child are put first. And I have great sympathy for the woman who called earlier, whose family was rather disrupted when her sister came back into the picture and the mother. I understand that, but, to me, the child, for me, should come first, even if she is an adult.

  • 10:55:35

    RENEEAnd because this little baby that my son gave up would've been so loved and is loved. And it just heals my heart to know that she is with such a wonderful family, and they took such care to pick a family for her and that the openness of it is part of the beauty of it.

  • 10:55:52


  • 10:55:54

    RILEYWell, I think what you're sharing is something that, certainly, I'd like to see more often. And, you know, to have this child be surrounded by both their two families, I think, is, you know, something that is a gift to this child.

  • 10:56:12

    REHMFinally, Bennett, do you see more and more people seeking their identities through companies like yours doing DNA searches?

  • 10:56:27

    GREENSPANWe've actually enjoyed an exponential growth in the genetic DNA area as it relates to, you know, family heredity, whether I'm English, Irish, Scottish, where my ancestors came from. Am I partially Native American, partially African-American? So that area -- the whole niche, Diane, is exploding, and the adoption subset of that market is getting more and more interested as it becomes more and more educated.

  • 10:56:56

    REHMAll right. And we'll leave it at that. Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA, Deborah Riley of the Center for Adoption Support and Education, Kimberly Leighton, assistant professor of philosophy at American University, thank you all so much.

  • 10:57:18

    RILEYThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:18

    LEIGHTONThank you.

  • 10:57:19

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:23

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn, and the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones.

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