The Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer presented a set of stories which are becoming common in a world where Americans can buy DNA kits at the drug store and begin an online search for their ancestry. The sometimes results are: Mom and Dad, they ain’t who they used to be.

Last Monday, October 25 staff writer Rita Giordano told the story of a 69 year old software engineer who was given a 23andMe at home genetic test by his sister as a gift. His interest was tracing his parents in a historical setting. But when the test results came back, and he compared his results with his sister they both found out that his sister wasn’t. When the two started their discussion they both quickly realized that the tests results don’t tell you which child was actually fathered by the fellow previously known as “Dad.”  Their parents and others of their generation were gone but there were other relatives whom they thought were blood relatives and thus, the search began. The end result after what became a national search was that Joel Gottfried’s mother had consulted with a New York City fertility specialist and Joel shares common genes with quite a few people in America he didn’t know about……if you know what I mean.  The unnamed fertility doctor has a lot of children. Needless to say, Gottfried and his sister Debbie Heller, started in search of ancient history but were left with some puzzling questions about their parents.

Some history here might be helpful. In 1940 the average American family had 3.8 members. Infertility was an obscure medical issue because few American families had  problems conceiving. Fertility treatment was only beginning. Meanwhile, DNA tracing was decades in the future. This writer recalls that as recently as 1987, trial courts were grappling with whether to admit DNA results as they seemed “unreliable.” Last, but not least, the concept of collecting and preserving eggs and sperm was also untried.

I focus on the Gottfried story because when he was conceived circa 1951 his mother and the physician with whom she consulted did not have a lot of options. Suffice to say that in 1951 a woman’s identity was very much wound around the role of becoming a mother. As for how she became pregnant by her doctor, no one will ever know.

The lead story on the Sunday Inquirer’s front page involves an abandoned child who re-connected with her family at age 59. It is actually a story with a happy ending. A child abandoned in a pillow case finds her family. Good things can happen. A second article in the Health Section of the newspaper reveals that while the testing and tracing aspect of family history can be easy, resources to cope with the surprise or angst that the test results can produce are not widely available. DNA not only reveals family history. It can also portend vulnerability to disease or disabling conditions. Life’s candle is not always as long as the Census Bureau predicts, and DNA testing often predicts things we might not want to know. But family history can be equally troubling. In a day before computers and the internet, many physicians in training sold their genetic material to help pay for medical school. Long before that it seems that some male physicians who treated infertile couples knew they could provide a “solution.” Little did they know that technology could catch up with them. In those days many couples coping with male fertility issues grimaced and opted for artificial insemination from an anonymous donor randomly selected by the fertility center. So, if you are 40 years or younger, chances are your parents know what you are only now discovering. They won’t be giving you and 23andMe gift cards for a reason. But, of course, the range of men impregnating women is one without limit and the circumstances can be problematic to say the least.

Confronted with information that they are not the product of a blessed union, many children feel wounded and desperate to learn how things came about. This presents some serious dangers both for the child seeking to know and the person who is or suspected to be the parent. The children often mis-read the situation badly, naively thinking that their actual parent will welcome seeing them. As noted a moment ago, many “fathers” were merely selling their sperm in the innocent belief that technology would never reveal their identities. Other fathers had enormously complicated relationships with the woman they impregnated. Some were even misled to believe that the pregnancy was being terminated when they last saw the child’s mother.  As Kevin Kovelman a professor at Thomas Jefferson University put it to the Inquirer: “When it stirs up conflict or disturbs a family’s mythology, there can be emotional consequences.”

Legally, there isn’t much to do but there has not been a lot of litigation about this. If the child is still a minor there may be a duty of support but courts have expressed some unwillingness to impose support obligations where there never was intercourse or an understanding about parenting roles. You can’t just sue someone to make them take a test or acknowledge paternity. The law is premised on the idea that the courts are open to people who have been injured or not gotten what they bargained for. We don’t have a legal right to parental contact if they don’t want it.

If you are someone in the delicate position of trying to find a parent, think it through and investigate what you might expect to learn before you go knocking on doors. If you are staring at the 23andMe kit, you have to ask “Am I prepared to learn bad news or see what Dr. Kovelman would term ‘myths destroyed’?”