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When you use 23andMe’s DNA Relatives feature, you get a message cautioning you that the information you’re about to see could be unexpected. For Danny-J Johnson, that couldn’t have been more of an understatement.
When Danny-J was about 13, she learned that her parents had used a sperm donor to help them conceive. (They did the same, with a different donor, when her younger brother was conceived.) Learning that her dad might not actually be her biological dad changed her life.
Around 2013, Johnson used the 23andMe service while trying to get information on potential health risks. Four years later, after the company’s new DNA Relatives feature became available, she learned she had two half-siblings.
The revelations of new relatives didn’t stop there. After Danny-J reached out to one of the women 23andMe identified as her half-sister, she connected with her biological father. He told her that he had donated sperm throughout the 1980s—a lot of it. Danny didn’t just have one or two new half-siblings; she might have more than a hundred of them. She remembers her response upon learning this: “OMGOMGOMG… what the actual F?”
As Danny-J learned, Bruce, her biological father, was a single father of two boys when he began donating sperm to both earn money and help others. He dealt with several different clinics in the San Francisco Bay Area between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, and didn’t turn down any opportunity to donate when asked. Though he was curious about any offspring he might have, he stopped asking nurses if anyone had gotten pregnant after 80 confirmed children.
Some of the first half-siblings of this newly discovered family included Danny-J, Lindsay Hunt, Chris (who prefers only to be identified by first name), and another sibling (who prefers not to be identified by name at all). They decided to meet in person, holding a “family reunion” with each other and Bruce in New York in September 2017.
“It’s so weird yet amazing to see little pieces of myself in the faces of half-siblings and our ‘sperm-dad,'” Lindsay Hunt wrote on her blog. “Some of us look more alike than others, some don’t look anything alike, and some of us have just one single trait that resembles another—like the dimple on our left cheek when we smile.”
The Family Grows
In late 2017, after the siblings first gathered in New York, a new sibling, Ron, breezed through 23andMe’s cautionary message without paying much attention, then learned that he too was part of Bruce’s progeny. At first, he thought it must be a mixup on 23andMe’s part. Even after he was contacted by Danny and invited to the Facebook group, he told himself it was an elaborate practical joke capitalizing on 23andMe’s mistake. Which made sense: He had no idea that a sperm donor was involved in his conception.
It wasn’t until later, sitting in a 24 Hour Fitness locker room, that he pieced together a few memories and decided to call his parents and ask point blank whether this was all real. It was.
Each time someone who’s connected through Bruce’s sperm uses 23andMe or AncestryDNA to peer into relative connections, he or she is greeted with a growing list of relatives. When Danny opted-in to 23andMe’s Relative feature and learned she had new siblings, it was only two people. It took her a few days and a lot of tears to get up the nerve to send them a message through the site. As the list of half-siblings heads towards triple digits, it will become even more of a task for people to process, both logistically and emotionally.
Many of the siblings have blogged about this experience. Each of them emphasize that it takes time digest the information. One sibling who recently discovered his large new family—he prefers not to disclose his identity—took a few weeks before he ultimately decided to join the Facebook and WhatsApp groups that Danny and the others now use to keep in contact with one another. Another has ignored the reunited siblings’ attempts to get in contact.
Old Secrets, New Technologies
When Bruce was donating sperm decades ago, genetic-data services such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA—and even a social network like Facebook—would have sounded like fantasy, and the privacy issues they raise weren’t on anyone’s radar. Today, donors who had been promised anonymity are having it undone. It’s a situation with parallels to plenty of past instances of technology companies unleashing technical advances in spite of potential societal risks.
With a little bit of genetic information in hand, it doesn’t take too much detective work to scour Facebook and other social networks for relatives you never knew you had. “We have all found that we share the gene for being really good at stalking,” says Hunt half-seriously. “The second we discover a new name on 23andMe or Ancestry, everyone is all-hands-on-deck on every social media site to try and find the new half-sibling and see pictures of them. It is absolutely insane how much information we can uncover through technology.”
Beyond the potential to establish family ties, 23andMe and AncestryDNA offer those who know they were donor-conceived access to health-related facts that can be vital for routine checkups, pregnancies, and operations. They can also help answer lingering questions about physical appearance, personality traits, and other factors with a genetic component. But as useful as these services are, they can also uncover information that their customers—and their relatives—might not be ready to contemplate.
“I bet if you asked all these families as their babies were being born if they were grateful for a donor, I think they would all say yes,” says Danny-J. “Now, for whatever reason, some of them seem pissed about it being known.”
There’s at least one Facebook Group for donor-conceived kids which has grown by nearly 150 people since June and currently includes around 495 members. Danny-J confirms that conversation in the group, which is private, runs the gamut of emotions. Some members are just learning about the facts of their conception and are angry; others have known most of their lives and have had time to take in the information.
“Out of the 14 half-siblings we have discovered so far, only five of us knew we were donor conceived before doing a DNA test,” says Hunt. “We have all really helped each other out through the initial shock and eventual acceptance of learning about our biological family. It’s been amazing to have each other to lean on, support, and share our stories.”
Chris says that “discovering all these new siblings has been a lot of fun. Getting to know them helped me fill in some of the little things I always wondered about myself. And also being able to talk about issues that affect us all through WhatsApp and Facebook. We all feel this is our own special thing that not many people experience.”
23andMe declined to answer questions for this story, but a spokesman for the company provided this statement: “Although 23andMe was not designed to help people confirm parentage or find biological parents, our DNA Relatives tool does help people find and connect with participating genetic relatives. This feature is completely optional, customers must actively choose to participate and are informed up front that by using the tool they may discover unexpected relationships.”
Ancestry also provided a statement, which acknowledged that it “recognizes that the information we provide to our customers can be surprising and at times, life-changing.” The company notes that its customer-service representatives are trained to help customers interpret the data they receive about their backgrounds, with a small team of reps dedicated to responding to the most sensitive queries.
These genetic services are putting the control into individuals’ hands to uncover unprecedented information—whether everyone is ready or not. Though Danny-J was shocked by her discovery at first, she says that it’s ultimately been a positive experience. “It changes everything,” she says. “And it changes nothing.”
[Note: some of the names in this article have been changed at the request of the people mentioned for privacy reasons.]