Orphan Testing & the Search for An Origin

22 July 2014

Having lately resorted to genetic testing to uncover my immediate genetic family, I confront therefore the panoply of folks, mostly not adopted, who are on a similar (but different) quest for their origin.[1]

Compared to whatever conceits are at work in the efforts of committed and serious genealogists, the amateurish, armchair types—the ones who causally claim descent from Napoleon or Cleopatra or Ireland—present a different picture. Most don’t seem to have the patience or wherewithal to do the necessary work to ferret the details out. Genetic testing companies give the impression, “Just do the test and your family tree will spring up before your eyes.” Not so. Consumers instead receive some vague pronouncement like “you’re 89% European” and that’s where it stops.

Notwithstanding the difficulty of making this result mean something more specific, I wonder why genetic testing has emerged particularly as a tool for hooking into a human curiosity about one’s origin, especially in the United States. I think there are several factors.

First, of course, advertising and hype help bolster the market for it. Second, to the extent that “white” people are coming to realize that “white” is not a race and that people of “ethnicities” have all kinds of cool or neat “roots,” this helps to drive home the realization, “Oh, maybe I have roots. Wait. What are my roots.” In a place like England or the Czech Republic, not only is a much vaster amount of genealogical information already readily available (if one “does the work” or simply “consults the book”), one’s “ethnic” descent is already much more likely to be obvious: i.e., plainly I’m English, or Irish, or Scottish—probably a bit muttishly so, but to whatever degree I claim “white” this maps almost immediately onto “Irish” or whatnot. Not so in the United States. Third, then, the history of massive immigration, a subsequent mass history of interbreeding, and a complex (often taboo or denied) history of intermingling with Native Americans, imported slaves, and the various immigrant groups makes it pretty much impossible to make “white” overlap on any precise, non-concatenated ethnic designation. Fourth, this itself makes people in the United States prone to the equation “white” = “American” as a default. And, fifth, once you realize or decide that won’t cut it, finding ones “roots” becomes a tasty prospect. All of this would seem to increase the likelihood of the popularity of genetic testing in the United States.

But then, how does this support the State’s interests?

Significantly, the FDA intervened to prevent one testing company from providing “health reports”. Why doesn’t matter so much as far as this post is concerned, except to note that the State did not also feel any need to prohibit “genealogy hunting” or “origins curiosity” via genetic testing.

This connects to issues for orphans because, in historical legal terms, the “health issue” argument has very often been used successfully to force States to open adoption records. Even now, in different states, a record might be opened for the sake of “health information” although often with the caveat that “identifying information” may be excluded at the parents’ request. In some cases then, the strategic pretext of using “health issues” to uncover “one’s origins” got worked-round by the State and fell short of the “real” goal: answering the question, “who are my parents?”

In the United States, for many people, their citizenship appears in the hyphen, i.e., I’m Irish-American. If “white” = “American” ultimately doesn’t cut it for someone then the addition of a hyphen helps “fix” citizenship. Moreover, realizing I’m Romanian-American, for instance, doesn’t transfer my allegiance to Romania but rather to other Romanian-Americans living in the United States. And this particular urge, at least when it shows up in “white” populations (I’m suggesting), occurs due to the vast and nearly total destruction of sociability that the neoliberal state has been working on for the last 40 years with such dogged insistence. Thus, as “society” disintegrates around people, leaving them more and more wondering at a fundamental level “who am I?” (and in a context where “I’m an American” has for some disintegrated to the point of vacuity), then genetic testing permits offers a “patch” in the addition of a hyphen (a minus sign?), so that White=American becomes Irish-American, or whatnot. The typographical change alone is fascinating.

So for the orphan who is adopted, as one of the rootless persons par excellence, the offer of genetic testing for “origins” has a different flavour, especially in transnational cases. A transnational adoptee from Korea, for instance, would seem more properly an American-Korean than a Korean-American; or perhaps even more simply, a displaced Korean. There was never any white=American equation in the first place for an “origin” from genetic testing to provide its hyphen (or minus sign). But even for a domestic adoption: confirmation that I’m “Welsh” doesn’t make me Welsh-American; it makes me Welsh. And, in fact, that matches exactly the already extent origin story; my adoptive parents told me, “You’re Irish, German, and Welsh,” even though I was born in the United States. My status as an “American” never got asserted by anyone. For me, to be told by genetic testing “You’re Welsh” does, in fact, transfer my national allegiance to Wales, or at least intervenes that move as a step on the way to redefining this whole mess, “I’m Welsh-American (also).”

The adopted orphan has historically been able to demand the State relinquish its monopoly on access to health information, and the State has at times done so, but often without disclosing the birth parents. Whatever factors are in play that make an orphan’s petition “I want to know about my health” persuasive to the State, they must not arise simply by virtue of the request itself, since (1) some orphan petitions get denied and (2) the State directed at least one genetic testing company to stop making health information readily available. However, to the extent that “health information” is simply one strategy and pretext an orphan may resort to in pursuit of the “real” question (“who are my parents?”), we have not seen (that I can tell) any State intervention to prevent that use for genetic testing companies.

More precisely, it’s very unlikely simply to stumble across your parents; they would have had to have tested as well at the same site you did. And sifting through the morass of relatedness to figure out family trees simply from your shared genetic information alone is a daunting task that will dissuade most from the attempt. So we might say the State doesn’t really “care” if we stumble across such people; whatever protection of their privacy the State affects (in allowing “non-identifying information” to be disclosed in the interest of an orphan’s “health questions”), genetic testing simply becomes a most recent means (along with search angels, private investigators, and perhaps sometimes genealogists, depending upon how much you know) for hunting down one’s genetic contributors.

Meanwhile, just as “health details with non-identifying information” evades or dodges the orphans “real” desire about “origins” (“who are my parents”), the vague offer of “origins” that genetic testing makes available (to everyone) similarly evades or dodges that “real” desire as well, if mostly only by accident. Still, it shows, in the way that it transforms White=American into Ethnicity-American, a useful function for the State, by “cementing” allegiance to one’s sense of citizenship (as an Ethnicity-American)—a function not available, by genetic testing, to the orphan. That is, those people who feel rootless in our current neoliberal wasteland may find succour or consolation by the “patch” of a hyphen provided by genetic testing. Such “rooted” individuals will supply more (quantitatively and qualitatively) docile bodies, in Foucault’s sense, vis-à-vis the State.

All of this was inspired by the question whether we participate in the means of our oppression (as orphans) when we petition for information about our origin. In the case of genetic testing, we see that whatever tool it offers, its usefulness will be more through our work and our alliances with other people (indirectly related to us). The “health issue” has been Federally shut down, and the “vague origins” issue cannot serve as a “patch” or “fix” (unless I agree, rather unconvincingly, that I should call myself, for instance, Welsh-American).

To the extent then that genetic testing does not meet our needs as we want them met, to rely upon it makes it always a second-best, at best. Still useful, perhaps, but it’s worth thinking, contrarily, that unlimited open adoptions are more on point, both for cases from the past and as a feature for all future ones.


[1] Established lineages, in point of fact, matter only to aristocrats, because it is by them that disputes about succession get determined. This matter touches upon everyday folks where issues of property come into play (succession writ small) so it is no surprise that records like tax rolls become such key documents (along with birth, marriage, and death records) in genealogical research. But I will simply state bluntly that most seriously committed genealogists (of non-famous families) do so in imitation of aristocrats. I oversimplify, of course, but it boils down to something like familial vanity to generate the sort of depth for one’s family tree normally reserved for aristocrats.


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