A Consumer DNA Test Strained My Marriage and My Family’s Privacy
3 min read | Feb 2021

A Consumer DNA Test Strained My Marriage and My Family’s Privacy

My husband’s previously unknown biological daughter entered our life at a difficult time. How much privacy are we owed?

SweetCarol / Gen X / Moderate / Writer

She announced herself last September. She thought he had a right to know she existed. 

He had never taken a consumer DNA test. But someone in his extended family did.

That’s how a 32-year-old woman was able to make herself known. A long-forgotten one-night stand from my husband’s past became his entire unsuspecting family’s present. 

We knew about each other’s pasts when we got married. For me, as long as I was his last, it didn’t matter. I was content knowing I would be the only woman to have his children. But a decision he made a long time ago ended up shifting our entire story. My husband admits this readily. There is responsibility. But what is that supposed to look like 32 years after the fact? 

She assured him she was just interested in information. Some medical history would be helpful. She wasn’t looking for a relationship. That wasn’t true either, but that’s another story.


My Husband and I Were Unprepared for This Surprise

Such an interesting concept. Rights, I mean. 

Whose and what rights is this about? Because I can assure you, we could have done without this knowledge, at least at that time.

COVID-19, she said, made her contemplate her priorities. It made her more aware of the uncertainty and fragility of life. And because of that she finally decided it was the right time to search for her biological family. We were worried about whether our business could stay afloat. We were trying to pay our employees. We were raising three children, one of whom was struggling deeply with online school and the loss of social interaction. We were mourning the loss of a close relative. 

She was hoping to find out where her dimples came from. She was curious about that small percentage of Scottish heritage the 23andMe test revealed. 

Of course, she wasn’t aware of the challenges we were contending with. How could she be? She couldn’t anticipate her genetic father would struggle tremendously with guilt and shame over past choices either. That his rush to make “amends” would distract him from everything else, and he’d fail to prioritize the people he was responsible for. That for a time I was left to manage the day-to-day challenges of real life alone. That her appearance would compound the stresses already on our plate, leading us—an otherwise happy couple of 20 years—to consider separation.

(We have no idea where her dimples come from. And my husband didn’t know he was Scottish.)

We were unprepared for her arrival. It was too much, too fast and we weren’t given the space to figure out how to handle this discovery. Maybe she felt it was her right to pursue what she was looking for, and there was no “right” time to do that—for her or for us.


Should Consumer DNA Tests Have More Privacy Policies?

I should mention we are private people. We live quiet lives. We’re focused on raising our children.   

Such an interesting concept. Privacy, I mean.

Is that a “right,” too? It seems to be. Sometimes.

My husband can’t receive the results of the mammogram I had last week without my explicit, written permission. Yet his first cousin can identify and contact his unknown offspring (and share the news on Facebook) before my husband learns of her existence.

For just $99 and a tube of spit, Ancestry.com or 23andMe divulges information that would otherwise be considered private, not to mention life-altering in some cases. And they share it over email. 

At least these companies have a 1-800 number people can call to help make sense of confusing results. So there’s that. 

I’ve read this is how as many as ten percent of test-takers find out their dad isn’t biologically their dad. Before they’ve recovered from the shock, they’ll have been bombarded by the media’s happy, seamless reunion stories (the only kind they seem to show). And they’ll be emboldened by Facebook support groups and most advice columnists, who suggest it is their right to contact this man (and his relatives) regardless of his circumstances. 

They’ll hear very little about privacy. Unsuspecting families will have to rely on searchers’ discretion. 

Interesting concepts—rights and privacy. When the two converge, when the lines become blurred, what happens? 

Which takes priority?

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