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DNA Day Has a New Meaning For Me This Year: I’m an NPE

“Not parent expected” – NPE – is a surprise that thousands of us have gotten as a result of consumer ancestry DNA testing. We discover that we are the offspring of a sperm donor, or sexual violence, or a long-ago fuzzy night at a party, a brief interval between partners, an affair, or a single experimental partner-swap long forgotten.

We find out that we aren’t who we thought we were, at least in our genes. I know I’m the same person, of course, but something has changed.

DNA Day to me this year means that I share approximately 25% of the DNA signposts used to assess ancestry – some 700,000 or so data points that mark genetic diversity – with six half-siblings, and possibly more.

I haven’t written about it much, because I can’t. My mind goes in too many directions, contemplating the complex repercussions. And so I’ve mostly shared my story with others who can more objectively tell it, the journalists who contacted me after reading one of my posts: a newspaper reporter, the author of an upcoming book on NPEs, and a film crew for a documentary on genetic testing.

My feelings have evolved. I’m calmer now.

It started in early September, when I heard from a woman who was initially listed as a first cousin on I’ve since learned that the half-sib matches often start out that way, both because the ranges of shared markers overlap, and perhaps to slow the avalanche of unexpected information.

In October I looked closely at the data and realized that she and I share nearly as much DNA as do full siblings. We are certainly halfsies. Then after December, in the wake of the massive holiday advertising campaign, matches began to pour in.

I was left with the six half-siblings, and soon after confirmation that the sister I grew up with is indeed a full sibling, although I never doubted that.

Of the six half-siblings, I’ve met two, been in touch with two others, and it is possible that the other two do not even know that they are part of our little kin club. Their adult children and perhaps nieces and nephews are in denial or want to protect them from knowing, or both. I respect that and don’t stalk them through Facebook as it is all-too-easy to do.

One of the six is the “social” offspring of the donor. We can deduce this from the list of relatives and the ways we can be related. I’d share 25% of the surveyed DNA  with a half-sister and 12.5% with her children, but not with the children of her siblings, who presumably have a different father. But when I’m matched to a half-sibling as well as his or her nieces and nephews and more distant relatives, that points to the extended donor family.

This is me. Over an 8-year period in the 1950s, my sister and six half-siblings were conceived using the same mystery sperm donor. We. Are. NPE.

From there, what to do becomes a question of ethics. Should a donor’s right to privacy or a recipient’s right to know her origins prevail? I don’t have an answer for that. I’m willing to step back, not pursue it, perhaps because I’m older. If I were 30 matters might be different; I’d want to know my medical history and possible future. Personal opinions vary.  

What about the rights of the sperm donors who had been promised an anonymity that is no longer possible in this day of spit-in-a-tube time machines? Guido Pennings, professor of ethics and bioethics at Ghent University in Belgium, just published a paper arguing for protecting donor anonymity that has had the folks on  NPE and Donor Conceived private Facebook groups up in arms, and understandably so. The flip side is the effect of the news on the donor’s wife and social children. I’ll be weighing in on this next week for Genetic Literacy Project.

My story has had a happy, if confused, not-quite-finished ending. I no longer check Ancestry and 23andMe every day — maybe once a week. I don’t think about the weirdness every day anymore. I’ve met a few terrific people with whom I share quite a bit of my DNA. I have new friends, and that’s always a good thing. 

But in honor of this DNA Day, I urge the testing companies to take some steps back and tamp down the advertising. Mother’s Day has been and will be upsetting enough; Father’s Day is going to be much worse because of the inherent difference between the male and female gametes. That is, a sperm donation can go much farther than an egg donation, sometimes generating dozens and even more than 100 half-siblings. So please put aside the quest to make money and to provide entertainment and consider that DNA ancestry findings can devastate families.

  1. Really? Stop trying to find the truth because it’s upsetting? Maybe the families are recasted because donor children are lied to their whole life! People don’t deserve to know where they come from because of donor anonymity? Anonymous donation is over. No other way around it. Much more consideration of the child created needs to happen. Don’t donate unless you can live with genetic child seeking you out later on.

  2. This is my opinion. You’re entitled to yours too of course. I haven’t been able to read the bioethicists paper yet but I hope he is at least one of us if he is psssing judgment. I was lied to my whole life too, but it was done for a caring reason, even if we now judge it as having been unethical. Accepting this has helped me to deal with it and move on. I wonder if people have different reactions depending on age. I’ve had a good life and am thankful for it. I’ve lived long enough to know what parts of my medical history are relevant to my children. That would not have happened without the donor. At this point n my life, anger at something that happened long ago is not useful to me. I am living in the present. But that’s my view. All are valid.

    1. People have different reactions depending on the reason for the lie and if the people who raise them were actually good people or not.

  3. My anonymous sperm “donor” made a choice to create and purposely abandon me, his child. He has no rights to be left alone. He might have signed some papers, along with my parents that guaranteed his anonymity- But I certainly didn’t. I have a birth right, as every child does. Why should I pay for the selfish actions of my parents?

  4. I am very interested in the upcoming book about NPEs. Can you tell us the author or title so we can watch for it? Or is it too soon for that?

    As an adoptee, I find the disruptive results of consumer DNA testing to be fascinating. For years, we adoptees were told that we were ungrateful and disloyal to ask about our genetic origins, that we were foolish to “not realize who our real family is”, that DNA doesn’t matter. Now, when so many people discover through DNA that their genetics don’t match their families, guess what–it matters!!!!

    I hope these developments can lead to all of us being a little more sympathetic to different points of view now.

    1. So grateful to read that I’m not alone in this discovery. It does matter. Every situation is different, but I am thrown for such a loop in learning that my father was not my father, so late in life. I really could have used that information over the years had anyone felt to share it with me. Probably only my parents, my mother knew, but how do I know that? I just can’t believe secrets like that should be kept. I understand, but then again I don’t.

  5. “Lost Family” by Libby Copeland. I don’t know when it will be published, I’d say at least 6 months, it is still being fact-checked. Thank you for your post — the adoptee point of view was something I hadn’t considered, but there are indeed many parallels. I do wish we would be more tolerant of other’s views. That is part of why I haven’t written very much about it, I hardly want to get my head bitten off for expressing my opinion. I’m in the same emotional situation as everyone else, but I am a geneticist and when I write authoritatively, I get yelled at, as you can see in other responses for being, well, me. But I do so want to learn more about all of the angles to this situation. To be blunt, I’m grateful to be alive and saddened that my parents had to use a donor to deal with multiple miscarriages and infertility, and feel somewhat helpless about it all. But that’s all. No more anger. No searching. It is what it is and does not change who I am now. All of our responses are personal and valid. Thanks for sharing!

    1. “If adoptive parents were lined up how is that abandonment?”

      I knew my mother (was in foster care) until I was nearly 8 years old. I was lied to by her, my adoptive parents and everyone in the system as to my real circumstances, who my biological father was, and so much more. When she relinquished me – we did not say “goodbye” – there was no truthful moment even then. I was told she was going on a short trip, but would write to me and we’d see each other again soon. My new reality (although still not the truth) was relayed to me months later over the phone by my caseworker — I would never see her again & would remain with my foster family — which had never been discussed with me before.

      I have tried 2 more times over the decades to speak with her on friendly, adult times. Not with anger, but to ask questions – to introduce my own daughter (her grandchild to her) – to tell her I turned out all right despite my childhood traumas. Both times I was rebuked.

      You are lucky to never feel rejected by your mother or to feel like a dirty secret hidden from everyone in her life, or to have your relationship denied. To feel like a scapegoat. My adopted mother also did not really want or love or choose me — she was coerced or convinced it was best (just as I was). She abused me mentally and physically. People in the foster/adoptive system knew, but chose this as my best placement. I had no choice.

      Only through DNA tests have I even been able to research MY biological family history… no one else thought I had any right to know it. I recently obtained my first 10 years of psych & medical records, heavily redacted (again — not within my rights to know even 50+ years later) and I was heavily triggered reading how I was a very skinny and “clumsy child” who often had fresh bruises from “constantly falling.”

      Yes, I sure did feel abandoned even with a family “lined up.”

    2. Thanks for sharing, Bernadette. I do indeed feel lucky compared to what you have gone through. I’m so sorry and hope that your newfound knowledge can be in some way helpful.

  6. Dr. Lewis, I can’t imagine what your experience has been like for you. Thank you for sharing. Yours is the most objective piece I have read so far on the subject; you clearly understand what is at stake for everyone involved. Our family has a bit of a different experience, but we are still in the thick of it after discovering (through another family member’s use of that my husband helped create a child/now adult from a one-night stand 30 years ago. Though his bio-daughter continues to be mindful of the impact on our family– she put the ball in our court for what any relationship would look like — it is still very difficult. Our marriage is just not equipped to deal with this. I wonder if any marriage is. We are good, ethical people, so we feel we can’t walk away, but we have two preteen daughters who are also struggling — suddenly there’s this other person that belongs to their “daddy” too (in the biological sense) and she is keenly interested in him. And her hope is to have an extended family-like relationship with all of us. My husband clearly struggles with a lot of guilt; that he created a human being he knew nothing about; that her bio-mom suffered the trauma of teen pregnancy and relinquishment; that a youthful indiscretion has caused so much upheaval in his own family, etc. I think he is overcome by the responsibility of the decision that is ultimately his own, but it continues to cause a lot of stress for many people. As far as your statement that DNA findings can devastate families, I couldn’t agree more. I am hoping it won’t totally devastate ours. Now that the initial excitement/shock has cooled some, I am hoping that with more time we’ll have better perspective, more healing for all involved and the right path will become clear for us. Thanks again.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing, Nicole. One of the frustrating things is that I can’t possibly be objective about any of this, and it seems new things occur to me on a daily basis. So many people are involved, over so much time, from one event. I hope that we can all work our way towards accepting what has happened and moving forward. Thanks again.

  8. I “get” where you’re coming from about searching . . . and there are certainly a wide range of views. A sister and three of my cousins were adopted through closed adoptions, as I was; we grew up together and we’re very close, yet no two of us have made the same decisions for the same reasons. Thanks for sharing the title/author. I will watch for that book.

  9. I am 52 years old and just found out that my dad is not my biological dad… My mother passed 5 years ago .. I was lied to my whole life… It turns out that my parents (that raised me) new this secrete my whole life and chose not to tell me. I am angry and sad and just overwhelmed. My Biological Father has passed so I will never get to know him either. I had a horrible life my parents abused me and my siblings. I feel cheated and robbed from the truth, the bright side is I have more siblings that are all normal and had a decent life. But this Dna information has become and intense search seeing who all I am related to and creating a better past for myself…

  10. I really like DNA tests, i have done them all! The most recent test I did was one of those Gene Plaza tests, where I found our that i am 23% Canaanite form Israel, it’s called the Bronze Age test. Keep em coming!

  11. I’m an NPE too and also learned from a DNA test from Ancestry. The moment I saw I had no paternal matches and that my ethnicity was suddenly different, I knew. It was a shattering discovery and one only fellow NPE’s can understand. There is a Facebook group which has 9,000 members and has been of great help to me. It is run by fellow NPE Catherine St. Clair. In my experience, nobody has a clue how emotional this journey is except for other NPE’s.

    1. Thanks for writing, Candace. I’m on half a dozen FB groups for us – one of them calls use MPE, I forget what that stands for. It can be helpful to read how others process the shock and react. The confusion and angst do pass with time. Now I better understand the need to back off, for some people. It seemed to depend on family sizes. One half-sib with a huge family minimized contact once we met, while another who was raised as an only child was thrilled. I’m somewhere in the middle. Yes, people who haven’t been there can’t imagine the emotions, the shattering of your sense of self. Be well!

    2. Hi Candace. I am in Catherine’s FB group for NPEs also. It is a great support group, someplace we can vent and tell our stories and no one judges, everyone understands. God Bless you.

  12. I found out my dad was not the dad who raised me. I now find out there is a support group for this. I always thought something was wrong growing up. My dad was always angry at me and punished me more severely that my sister or brother, (who btw were his children). I found out after my dad who was not biological died. My mother was drinking and told me she had an affair while my dad was off hunting. My mom put herself as the victim, even after admitting it was her choice to have the affair. Beyond that, my biological father was engaged to someone else. What a great person, such great character. He knew he was my bio. And reportedly said what do you want me to do about it.? I felt lied to my whole life. I found out about this around 1980. There is more to the story, but what hurts the most is that I didn’t matter. My mother said she tried to abort me with a fork. How bout that? Makes mother and Father’s Day hurt. There is more to the story.

  13. I met someone once who was conceived through an egg donor and how he hated his birth mother so he looked up his biological mother egg donor. He was a teenager. I expect if you are conceived through either anonymous sperm or egg donation you might end up idealizing your biological donor the same way children who lose a biological parent before being old enough to know them do.

  14. People seem to react the same way adopted children do – with rage that they were not allowed to know their “real” parents. But it really is just a crap shoot whether you are born knowing your parents or not when it comes to loving them. So don’t get bent out of shape about it. Kids have problems with their parents whether they are fully known biologically or not.

  15. I am a 65 year old male who stumbled upon NPE status 9 years ago (unknown bio father) when DNA testing revealed that my two brothers were my actual half brothers. Marriage certificate and birth certificate confirmed the NPE. Bio Mom took her secret to the grave. Emotional reactions ranged from initial shock, then anger, followed by sadness, and finally culminated with acceptance. Realizing that my Mom made a decision based upon, what I would have to consider, a serious set of circumstances to merit carrying that baggage and sticking with it for 55 years was the trigger which allowed me to accept and forgive. Nevertheless, I just sent my sample in for a Big Y-700. Still curious. Still searching.

  16. Ricki,
    You are welcome. After reading your piece I felt inclined to toss in my two cents. As to the Big Y-700… It’s a Y DNA test (father to son) I purchased from Family Tree DNA that can help to identify and connect with direct paternal ancestors. It’s a bit pricey, even when FTDNA runs one of their sales, but it can provide opportunities to further my research. It will allow me to utilize the only piece of information I have on my bio father: his haplogroup. Going this route requires educating oneself to the nth degree across the swath of DNA terminology. Not an easy task but it can be done. I hope to find that the combination of extensive paper trail family tree research, mtDNA research, and Y DNA research will open some doors. We shall see said the blind man.

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