Years after Hillel the Elder, René Descartes and Jean Valjean each famously articulated an existential search for self, journalist Libby Copeland told members of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Pittsburgh about a modern version of that quest.
Speaking by Zoom from New York, Copeland described her reporting on home genetic testing.
As a journalist who formerly covered technology and culture at The Washington Post, Copeland discovered numerous tales of people who swabbed their cheeks or spit in a tube, only to send the samples away without giving thought to the life-changing ramifications of unearthing genetic truths.
Copeland followed a particularly prominent case concerning Alice Collins Plebuch — a woman, who, thanks to a DNA test, discovered her father was unknowingly switched at birth.
Plebuch’s story — and the ethical implications raised by home genetic testing — became the seed for Copeland’s 2020 book “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are.”
“The Lost Family” was inspired by questions surrounding a test’s aftermath and the effects genetic tests can have on intergenerational relationships, Copeland said.
Though her book explores the larger topic of home genetic testing, Copeland dedicated much of her Oct. 7 Zoom talk to sharing several specific discoveries.
Years ago, when many of these DNA tests were first offered to consumers, marketers made it seem like “you’re going to find out something and your life was going to be enhanced … Maybe you’d keep doing genealogical research,” she said, “but it was not going to change your life in any way that was fundamentally troubling or anything.”
What followed, however, was that customer service reps and company executives began hearing from test takers who questioned why their DNA results didn’t match their siblings’, or why a new group of paternal relatives suddenly appeared on their family tree.
When early test takers began making these genetic discoveries, there wasn’t an appropriate infrastructure in place, Copeland said. The search for understanding spilled onto Facebook, where people started sharing similar tales. This led to therapists, genetic counselors and even journalists turning their attention to these cases.
What transpired with the DNA tests is no different than what occurs with other innovations, Copeland said: “You see this with technology over and over. You have this idea that it's going to be one thing, and it turns into something completely different.”
DNA tests were initially designed as tools for unlocking the mysteries of one’s heritage; over time, however, these tests also became crime-solving tools. As evidenced by the case of the Golden State killer — where a series of 50-year-old murders were solved by genetic genealogy — the tests proved immensely valuable. But as beneficial as it is to locate a previously unknown serial killer, the larger point is that these tests have made an overwhelming number of people identifiable, regardless of personal reservations, Copeland explained.
Imagine a scenario in which someone donated sperm in 1975 and decides today that, due to various complications, they don’t want to take a DNA test because they don’t want their adult biological children to find them. The reality, Copeland said, is that the choice to remain anonymous doesn’t really exist. Because so many people — and potential relatives of that sperm donor — have tested at this point, there’s already a database of family members assembled. “That means that even if your DNA is not there, enough of your segments are represented by these third and fourth and second cousins, that your genetic child can go on and figure out your identity through these people,” Copeland said.
Likewise, Copeland told the attendees that if any of them were to take a DNA test now, “we would already have in the system many cousins already there — including third cousins and closer,” Copeland said.
The reality is that these tests have become “ubiquitous to the point where it is opting in people who never made the choice to take a test,” Copeland said. And, to some extent, these tests are “eradicating our invisibility from a genetic point of view. I'm not saying that that is a bad thing or a good thing. But I think it's a very complicated and interesting thing.”
Many people don’t realize the extent to which these tests have changed our understanding of self, she added: “I think we really need to be talking about it, looking at it and looking at what this means and where it's going.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.