Advances in DNA science can pry open Pandora's box of family secrets

Advances in DNA direct-to-consumer services are making it cheap and easy to find out who is related to you, but it's not a fairy tale ending for everybody.

‘It’s a case of be careful what you wish for,’ says Dr. Judith Daniluk, reproductive issues expert

Advances in DNA sequencing have made it cheap and easy to find out who is related to you, but revealing old secrets can have serious consequences. (iStock)

Janet Keall's 20-year search for a biological family member ended with the discovery of a half-brother.

Or perhaps, that's when it really began.

"I just lost it. I was sobbing," said the 39-year-old, who now lives in Charlottetown.

Keall, abandoned as a baby in Prince Rupert, B.C., in the 1970s, has become a celebrity of sorts after finding two half-siblings — Kevin and Kathie — who share her mysterious beginnings.

Kevin (left), Janet Keall (centre) and Kathie Rennie are half-siblings who were all abandoned as infants in Prince Rupert, B.C. (Janet Keall)

Now the trio of "Rupert's Babies" continues to search for more family members, with Keall at the forefront, hosting a town hall Dec. 9.

Janet Keall hosted a free town hall to tell her story in Prince Rupert, B.C. (Janet Keall)

Like many DNA-assisted connections, though, their story does not tie into a neat bow.

Keall said she danced when her detective work and newspaper pleas turned up a second half-sibling, her sister.

"'Jackpot!' I thought," she said. But she describes how joy turned to shock after DNA tests confirmed that their mother had abandoned three babies.

"It shifted things a bit. Our biological mother was really struggling. It was more of a sombre sort of moment," said Keall.

DNA's magic key unlocks secrets

The foundlings have now joined a movement of people worldwide using DNA databases to search for relatives in the hope of unearthing secrets in the roots of their family trees.

"It's just fascinating. Many of these things — even five, six years ago — couldn't have been done before, but it's a case of be careful what you wish for," said Dr. Judith Daniluk, a reproduction issues expert at the University of British Columbia, who helped develop Canadian legislation on the topic.

She said some results have unexpected consequences.

Family myths explode

Many, like Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter, are surprised when the test plays havoc with family lore about their heritage.

Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter found out he was neither part Cherokee nor Scottish after he did a DNA test. (Cameron McWhirter)

McWhirter wrote about his experiences and spoke to CBC. He said he was raised as a proud Scot, visiting his homeland and celebrating the culture.

"But there were always these weird questions I had all my life," he said.

His DNA held the answers: McWhirter was neither part-Cherokee nor Scottish. Instead, he is Irish-Jewish.

"DNA opens up new ways of looking at who we are," said McWhirter, who hopes science helps explode concepts of race.

"To believe you are pure anything is just silly," he said.

Anonymity now impossible

Advances in DNA technology have also blown up the secrecy for sperm and egg donors. 

Both sperm and eggs leave a traceable genetic footprint, meaning donors are not invisible anymore. That's led to a lawsuit involving fertility doctors allegedly using their own sperm to inseminate patients.

"We cannot promise anonymity anymore," said Daniluk.

Another consequence: offspring of sperm donors can now connect.

While that is encouraged, experts say there can be consequences if the children try to trace down their genetic parents.

"With sperm donation and egg donation there's an anonymity. Donors feel, 'I didn't choose to create this life. I chose to donate to somebody who needed help. So, I'm not your parent,'" said Daniluk.

Keall and Rennie were both abandoned by their mother in Prince Rupert shortly after they were born. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Then there are the potential pitfalls of finding a relation in someone you already know:  "You could not know the person you just fell in love with is actually a sibling," said Daniluk.

DNA turns up secrets and lies

Science now almost trumps family history.- Janet Keall

New family members can now even be uncovered with a hunt through a U.S.-based DNA registry.

Register your DNA results online and it could lead to a match with another registrant, and a connection to a stranger who shares genetic material.

There is a direct-to-consumer genetic testing service called 23andme that promises "life-changing" results.

If users decide to opt in to find relatives, and do not choose to do so anonymously, they can be contacted by others with matches.

While some people do it for a lark and do not read the fine print, once registered, they may be contacted by anybody who matches, which can lead to big, and sometimes unwanted, surprises.

Keall, left, has been searching for her family for nearly 20 years. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

For example, an American biologist, using the pseudonym George Doe for privacy reasons, reported using the service for a course he was teaching on the human genome.

He tells the story of how he also gave his parents genetic tests as gifts.

Those tests led to the shocking discovery of a half-brother, who turned out to be the unknown son of his father. He said the situation led his parents to divorce.

'Biggest double-edged sword of my life'

Janet Keall has registered with 23andme and two other sites, Family Tree DNA and and is currently waiting for more discoveries of her own.

She wants to know where she comes from, and technology is making that ever more possible. 

"Science now almost trumps family history," she said. But she acknowledges her quest is problematic.

She wishes it could have remained a private, quiet search. She felt forced to make it so public.

"Honestly it is the biggest double-edged sword of my life," said Keall.

Keall hugs niece Lexie Haidon, half-sister Kathie Rennie's daughter. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

"People think, 'Oh this is easy.' But it's so much more complex than that. You have to be prepared for that, I don't want to word it as rejection, but respecting other people's boundaries," she said.

Her two-decade-long journey has prepared her to accept that if it is her mother's wish, despite the years of searching, she may have to just let her go.

About the Author

Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. @ybrend