Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Baby trafficking and other adoption secrets

An article on CNN today states that overseas adoptions from two of the biggest baby exporters, Vietnam and Guatemala, have halted their adoption programs after a crackdown against baby trafficking and corruption.  Sadly, much of the story focuses on the would-be American parents who are outraged that they can no longer adopt from these countries.  Most of these would-be parents are only focusing on what is in it for them; they want their baby no matter what.  They could care less if their child was stolen from some unwed mother and sold off as orphan, because according to them this child is now theirs!

Luckily, the US government is taking steps to prevent such corruption and baby stealing, such as requiring the relinquishing mother to appear with the child when they receive their visa, and required DNA tests for both mother and baby so identities can be proven.  Yet, these would-be adoptive parents are angry, saying that this painstakingly detailed review is “overkill”, and another responses by saying “My husband and I were absolutely devastated.  Adoptive parents have put a lot of emotional energy and a lot of financial resources in the process.”

While adoption seems like the ideal way to help a child who has no family, the downfall is that this is not always the case.  Overseas adoptions, notably countries such as Guatemala, Vietnam, Russia, Romania, and China, have turned the necessary into a financial provocative.  Guatemala exports one out of every 100 babies born there to wealthy US couples.

Many of these babies were not relinquished by their birth mothers, but either paid ridiculous sums of money to sell their children, or they were stolen unwillingly from them.  Some of these birth mothers were coerced, or forced to relinquish their child.

The sad thing is that this is not just and overseas problem.  Adoption agencies in the United States play the same games, usually with young teen moms.  They prey on these girls, tricking them to give away their children by whatever means necessary.  One of the most notorious has been the Catholic Church, which uses religion as justification for destroying these biological ties – stating that unwed moms are sinning and in order to repent their sins they must give up their bastard child.  Other adoption agencies trick young girls to cross state lines, so they can get away from the biological father so he has no say in the relinquishing process.

Further more, there are still children being stolen from women, particularly the young and the poor, and these stolen children are sold for upwards of $20,000 (for a white baby) to wealthy wanna-be parents.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

All in the name of Mom

There are days, and today is one of those days, where I feel like I’m beating a stupid dead horse.  No matter how many times you explain, no matter how many times you try to make someone understand your pain, unless that person is willing and able to separate themselves from their own desperate wants and needs, they will never grasp the immeasurable grief that comes with the intentional loss of kinship.

This is not an impossible task mind you, I know of quite a few recipient moms who ‘get it’ and can distinguish between their own feelings and the feelings of either their child or of donor conceived adults as a whole.  They can see the faults with donor conception, they can acknowledge that their decision may have caused an insatiable pain for their kids, but at the same time they can love and cherish their child(ren).  And these women, I don’t think they get the respect and the gratitude that they so deserve for succeeding in this task, because for many DC adults, these women have become our foundation. 

There are several DC moms who have become what I would call second moms to me, and they know who they are.  Not only do they have the integrity to stand up and say that (quoting one of them) “You know, I did what I thought was the best thing at the time, but looking at the situation, I may have made a mistake, while still loving my child and not being able to envision life without him“ but they selflessly understand that our views, whatever they may be are rightfully ours, and that truly wanting the best for their children is essentially accepting and empathizing with our loss.

However, the majority of mothers cannot begin to fathom this, as they are too defensive, too walled up behind their own emotions, their own insecurities, to be able to ultimately accept the fact that regardless of their own emotions, the child created in this manner is the one who is going to carry this decision as a metaphorical badge of bastardism until they day they die.

I received an email from one of the latter moms yesterday, and in my attempts to form a coherent and sound reply minus several select swear words, I’ve decided to blog about it.

In this email, I was informed that:

“The one thing that is very clear and will never change is the use of donors to create families”

“From the numerous emails I have received in only a couple of months, I feel like you are on the extreme edge of feeling it (donor conception – anonymous) is completely wrong.  I haven’t had anyone with the feelings you express”

“I would be heartbroken if either of my boys grow up to feeling the way you feel”

“And while I get that you are saying that those other situations happen through the realm of life, and as parents we CHOSE to bring our children into the world via donation…well I just don’t buy it.  I just don’t.  We CHOSE a lot more than that.  That (using a donor) is one small aspect”

“Not having children this way is not an option and one that will never happen”

And to top it off…”Please don’t take anything in this email as negative”

Without going all crazy white girl on this woman, I’m truly appalled at her lack of empathy, her complete disregard for an ADULT offspring’s feelings [her children are both under 6], and her obviously uninformed ignorance to the views of offspring.

All it takes is a few seconds to take a look at anything in the right column to see that we are not going to be silenced.  We are adult donor offspring and we deserve the same respect that the majority of these recipient moms take for granted…to know both our biological parents.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The incredible hunch that told me I'd met my sperm donor father


4th May 2008

The Sunday Mail

My hands were shaking so much that I could barely hold the letter containing the results of my DNA test.  I knew this could be the moment when two years of increasingly desperate searching for my father came to an end.

I'd braced myself for yet more bad news, so when I read the words "99.9 per cent probability" in among the medical jargon, I could hardly believe my eyes.

"Does this mean Peter Browne is actually my father?" I stuttered, my throat tightening with emotion, to the social worker who was sitting with me. When she nodded, I started crying uncontrollably.

I rushed home, still feeling like an emotional wreck, but utterly euphoric and determined to phone all my friends to tell them that at last I knew who I was, and where I came from.

Finally, I felt the missing part of my personal jigsaw had fallen into place. At last I felt like a complete person, able to face the future with confidence instead of uncertainty and anxiety.

As a child, I always believed a man called Darrell was my real dad. His name was on my birth certificate, just as it was on my older brother Adam's and my sister Kristy's.

Darrell was there when Adam was diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was just four. Adam died just before his sixth birthday, when I was three months old, so I don't remember him.

I know Darrell found the loss very hard, but in the early years at least he still managed to fulfill his role as a father to me and Kristy, who's three years my senior.

But Darrell and my mum had problems in their relationship and split up when I was four. When he took me into the kitchen and told me he wasn't going to live with us any more, but that we'd still see each other at weekends, I accepted it, as children do.  In fact, he virtually disappeared from my life and I was pretty much raised by my mother.

But as the years passed, I began to wonder why it was that my mum and sister were so similar in looks and personality, whereas I looked more like Darrell, with his olive skin.  Mum and Kristy enjoyed being indoors, reading or doing crafty things, while I loved sport and being outdoors.

Increasingly, I became aware of feeling like the odd one out in the family. I was never treated that way - but inside I felt there was something missing, though I couldn't put my finger on it.

As we grew up, Darrell contacted us only every few years. I often thought of him, though, and wondered why he'd chosen to walk away from me.

The older I got, the more I felt I had to ask him why he did not want to spend more time with me.

At 16, I knew the time had come to see him again and ask him all the questions that troubled me.  Why didn't he want to keep in touch? Had the death of my brother made him scared of bonding again? If I wasn't like my mum and sister, did I have more in common with him?

I searched the electoral roll and found the address he was registered at, but when I got there he'd moved.  I managed to find another address for him through a family friend, and wrote him a letter asking why he wouldn't see me.

He replied by writing: "I am the father of no child."

The message couldn't have been more blunt but I just didn't take it in. I had no other reason to doubt he was my natural father, and thought he was just being unpleasant and trying to drive me away.

My mother Carolyn is a thoroughly honest woman and had taught my sister and me to be truthful people, so I never for a second suspected she might have been hiding something about my parentage.

I was so hurt and angry by Darrell's words that I backed off for a couple of years, but deep down I refused to give up. Eventually I wrote to him again and insisted we should meet up.

By then I was 19 and sharing a flat with a friend. Very reluctantly, Darrell came round to visit, and because I was on the phone when he arrived, he chatted to my friend for a while.

When I rang off, he and I talked for a while but he didn't really offer me any explanation for the way he'd behaved, and was non-committal about the future.

I found him infuriating, but try as I might to ask him all the questions I'd had in my mind, I didn't feel I'd got anywhere.  The atmosphere was tense the whole time, and after he left my flatmate went very quiet.

Eventually, though, she told me what was wrong. She admitted that while I'd been on the phone, Darrell had told her that he wasn't my real Dad.  My immediate reaction was: "Oh yea, that's typical of him - he just wants to disown me," and that night I phoned my mum to tell her his latest lie.

Just as I was saying "What an idiot he is", the phone line went silent and then my mum started crying. Mum continued sobbing as she explained that Darrell was right - he was infertile, and that as a result they had decided to use three separate donors to have all three children.

She explained that 20 years ago, parents were sworn to secrecy, and the hospital advised them never to tell their children they were conceived with the help of a sperm donor.

I was totally stunned, and flooded with feelings of anger, betrayal, hurt and disappointment. Mum had never lied to me in my life, and I couldn't comprehend the enormity of what she had confessed.

Everything I had believed in was taken away in an instant. It was completely bewildering.

I had flashbacks to when I was little and family friends said: "Don't you look like your Daddy."

Now, I could see that my childhood was a lie, and there was a gaping hole in my identity - not to mention the fact that 50 per cent of my medical history was missing.

The only reason I looked like the man I'd thought was my father was because the hospital made an effort to match his physical traits with those of the sperm donor.

In the days following that first anguished confession on the phone, my mum told me that every time she wanted to tell me the truth, she just couldn't bring herself to do it.

When, after a few weeks, my shock slowly subsided, I started to see the glimmering of a silver lining.  Perhaps I had a father out there who would want to know me, who could fill in the missing pieces of my life, and with whom I could have a meaningful relationship?

Determined to find out everything I could about my birth, with heart pounding I phoned the clinic my mother told me she had used 20 years earlier and explained who I was.  They told me the donation had been anonymous, and all records dating back before 1985 had been destroyed to protect donor identity, as was the law back then.  I was devastated at this news, and feared I'd never know who I was.

Kristy comforted me and suggested I contact a group she had found on the internet - the Donor Conception Support Group - for advice.

They gave me some really helpful counselling and support, although I still couldn't come to terms with never knowing who my father was.  After some time, I was invited to one of their meetings to help lobby for a voluntary donor registry.

It wouldn't help me because a register would not be retrospective, but I didn't want anybody else to go through the same experience as me.

The first person I saw at the meeting was a sperm donor called Peter Browne, who was hoping to trace his offspring - one son and one daughter. I had a strong, instant reaction to him.  Something told me I had to speak to him, and I had a bizarre feeling we had a connection. When I introduced myself, I noticed I looked like him, but I told myself I was just being silly and clutching at straws.

Discovering that he had donated sperm in 1980-1981 made my heart beat faster - I was born in 1982 - but I told myself to put him out of my head. After all, the odds of him being my dad were literally millions to one.

Weeks later, I still couldn't put him out of my mind and asked the support group to ask Peter if he would agree to a DNA test. Looking back it seems absurd, but a sixth sense urged me to do it.

To my relief, Peter, an accountant, readily agreed - I think he had sensed a connection, too - and while we waited for the results he appeared on a television discussion about donors.

The presenter asked him: "What would it mean to you if you were to find your donor offspring?" Peter replied: "It would validate my whole existence."  That comment really floored me, and I hoped against hope he was my real dad.

When, six weeks later, the social worker invited me to the hospital where I was conceived to give me the DNA results, I reminded myself they hadn't matched a single parent and child in the past 20 years of testing.

But that was about to change. Reading those magical words "99.9 per cent probability" changed my life in an instant.  Peter - the stranger I'd bumped into by chance - was my natural father. It seemed incredible, but there was no way in the world our DNA would match so precisely if I weren't his child.

The social worker gave me Peter's phone number, but it took me several days to pluck up the courage to ring him. Despite hearing what Peter had said on TV, I think part of me feared rejection again.

When I finally phoned him, I said something like: "This is a bit weird, but I think you're my father" - to which he replied: "I know, I've been waiting for your call."  I guess he'd come to that conclusion himself, having learned about my date of birth and met me for himself, but he hadn't wanted to pre-empt the test results.

It was such a relief to hear him say that, and we chatted for two hours. I had a million questions to ask him.  I discovered he'd had a long-term relationship that broke down in his 30s and had never had the opportunity to have children, so being a donor was his way of making a difference to someone's life.  He'd lost both his parents and was keen to become part of another family, which was wonderful news.

To my delight, I discovered we had loads of shared interests. We both love tennis and volleyball, we both play the piano by ear, and he had been in the air force, something I had considered doing before I went into the travel industry.

More and more of my identity started making sense, and by the end of the call we had agreed to meet up a week later.

Peter came to meet me at my home, and though I was really nervous and shy, he is such a warm, friendly person that he made it easy for me.

When we met he immediately hugged me, and then we walked on the beach and had a coffee.

In one way, it was like chatting to a stranger I'd just bumped into, and in another it was like I was in a dream. I had to keep reminding myself the person before me was actually my father.

Physically we look very alike, which helped, and I kept sneaking sideways glances and comparing our noses and the way we smiled.

From that day on, I felt happier than I ever had before. Not only did I know who I was, but I got on with my father really well.

He stayed in the area for a week and we had dinner together a few times, then kept in contact by phone after that.  Slowly but surely he started adopting the fatherly role, making sure I had car insurance and had paid my bills, which was lovely.

It's now five years since we first met and we're very close. Knowing who I really was gave me the confidence to spread my wings without worrying about my identity all the time.  I was finally free to be myself and follow my dreams. I'm a stronger and more liberated person than I was before, and have so much more confidence to go out and grab life with both hands.

In the beginning, Peter was reluctant to meet my mum, but in time he has got to know the entire family.

I don't blame my mum at all for what has happened, and my initial anger at her was short-lived. She did what she thought was right and had my best interests at heart. We're very close.

She remarried last December, and Peter came to the wedding. It was one of the proudest moments of my life posing for a photograph with the two of them.

Now, I have a new ambition. Peter's donation led to one other pregnancy, and we would both like to trace my half-brother.  The hospital has his name but won't release it to us because of privacy, but we'll keep fighting the red tape.

I believe all donor offspring should have the right to know who their father is.  It shouldn't be left to chance the way my life was. I'm just grateful for the day I bumped into a stranger named Peter.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Gregor Mendel's Funhouse of Traits

So you’ve found a possible sibling or donor match, but you’re not quite sure you’re ready to take the plunge and submit to a DNA test.  Here’s some of the most well known and oftentimes downright bizarre Mendelian traits in order to make a more informed decision to pursue a DNA test.  Remember however, that even if you and your potential donor or sibling do not share a specific trait does not mean you are not related!!

1. Blood type – ABO blood types are based on the presence or absence of A or B antigens on the red blood cells.  Someone who is blood type A has A-antigens present and Anti-B antibodies on their red blood cells.  Someone who is blood type B has the reverse.  Someone who is AB has both A- and B-antigens but no antibodies.  Someone who is O has no antigens and both Anti-A and Anti-B antibodies.

A and B blood types are co-dominant (neither dominates over the other – A and B allele give AB blood type), and both are dominant over O blood type, which is recessive.  Therefore to have O blood type you must have inherited an O allele from BOTH parents.  If you inherit an O from one parent and a B from the other you are B blood type.  Someone who is AB inherited one from each.  A and B always trump O.  If you are blood type B and your mother is also B your donor could have been any blood type (AO, B, O, or AB) and you would have had to inherit either a B or O allele.  If you are blood type O and your mother is O, your donor could have been any blood type (AO, BO, or O) except AB.  If you are A and your mother is O your donor MUST have been blood type A (or AB).

 The positive or negative refers to the ‘Rh factor’, and it’s simply the presence or absence of the Rh antigen, where positive is dominant over negative.

2. Dimples – dominant trait.  If you have dimples one of your parents MUST have had dimples.  If you don’t have dimples, your donor may or may not have had dimples.

3. Cleft chin – dominant trait (same as dimples).

4. Earlobes – free hanging earlobes are dominant (AA or Aa) and attached earlobes are recessive (aa). If your mother has attached earlobes and you have free hanging earlobes, your donor must have had free hanging earlobes.

5. Freckles [that fade in winter (as opposed to sunspots that don’t)] – dominant presence of Mc1R gene (controls melanocytes = pigment).  If you have freckles and your mother does not, your donor most likely had freckles (variable depending on UV exposure and skin complexion).

6. Hitchhiker’s thumb – recessive trait.  You had to have inherited both recessive alleles from each parent, but both parents could have normal thumbs so difficult to determine.

7. Widow’s peak – dominant trait (same as dimples and cleft chin).

8. Ability to taste phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) – PTC is an organic compound that has either a very bitter taste (dominant) or no taste at all (recessive) depending on the person’s genetic make-up.  It’s said that about 70% of the general population can taste PTC.  Often this is a science experiment done in high school biology classes to teach Mendelian inheritance.

9. Eye color – while previously thought to be a single gene, now found to to be much more complex.  In simplest terms, brown eyes are dominant over green and blue eyes, and green eyes are dominant over blue eyes.  Two brown-eyed parents can have children with any eye color (depending on what their genotype is...BB x BB has only brown-eyed offspring, but Bb x Bb can have brown or blue-eyed children) but two blue-eyed parents can only have blue-eyed children since blue eyes are recessive (bb x bb).

There have been two genes found implicated in eye color (but it’s still more complicated than just this)…Bey2 (brown eye) and Gey (green eye).  Bey2 has two alleles – brown and blue, and Gey has two alleles – green and blue.  Every person has two alleles for each of these genes.  Bey2 can have three different combinations…brown-brown, brown-blue, and blue-blue.  The first two produce brown eyes and the latter produces blue eyes, since brown is dominant over blue.  But there is a second gene, Gey which has two alleles as well, and here green is dominant over Gey-blue and also Bey2-blue.  Therefore, if one parent is blue-eyed and the other is green-eyed, depending on what the genotype of the green-eyed parent (green-green or green-blue of the Gey gene) is, all their children could be green-eyed, or a 2:1 ratio of green:blue eyed children.

10. Hair type – incomplete dominance trait, where straight (HH), wavy (Hh) and curly (hh) follow a spectrum.  Two straight-haired parents have all children with straight hair, but if one parent has straight and one has curly hair, instead of one being dominant over the other, the children all end up with a combination of the two, or wavy hair.  If one parent has curly hair and the other has wavy hair 50% of the children will have curly hair and 50% will have wavy hair.  Same if one parent has straight hair and the other has wavy hair – 50% of the children would have straight hair and 50% would have wavy hair.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Whatcha gonna do with all that junk, all that junk in your...DNA??

Junk DNA…long strings of random highly conserved (unchanged throughout evolution) nucleotide sequences that don’t code for any genes.  So why in the world would anyone be interested in this stuff?? 

Within all this junk are things called short tandem repeats (STRs), which are a sequence of 2-10 base pairs are repeated a certain number of times, and these repeated sequences are passed down from parent to child virtually unchanged.  These regions are what are used for both paternity and genealogical DNA tests.

Standard paternity tests use what is a called a 15 marker STR loci test, which uses 15 of the most desirable STRs and amplifies these regions and counts the number of repeated sequences in the child and alleged father’s DNA for each marker.  For each marker the number of times it’s repeated (e.g. 8, 10, 18 times) has a relatively high amount of variation among individuals in a population, therefore paternity (or maternity) can be determined based on inheritance of 15 different markers.

Since our autosomal chromosomes are diploid (we inherit ones from each parent), we inherit two sets of repeated sequences for each marker, thus one of them must have been from the father.  In other words, to obtain an inclusive paternity result, every marker must have at least one of the alleles matching between alleged parent and child, and by testing the mother as well it gives more evidence to which allele was inherited from the father.

This is slightly different from a genealogical DNA test, which uses strictly STRs found on the Y chromosome.  Since males are XY, they HAD to have inherited their Y chromosome from their father, and their father inherited his from his father and so on and so forth.  Since the Y chromosome is virtually unchanged as it passes through generations of males, the more markers used the more specific of a Y chromosome identity is established, which in turn can determine a surname lineage (in theory).

Sibling and half-siblingship DNA tests are similar to paternity tests, in that they use the 15 autosomal STR loci test, however beyond that things get much more complicated.  In a paternity case an alleged father can be negative with 100% accuracy, and can be positive with 99.99% accuracy.  For siblings however, it’s not a black and white matter.  Instead of being included or excluded with almost 100% accuracy, siblingship is based on a relatedness index.  A number below 1.0 indicates two individuals who are not related.  An index above 1.0 indicates the two individuals are more likely to be biologically related.  The higher the index is the greater likelihood that they are siblings.  Half-siblingship indexes determine the likelihood that the two share at least one common parent. 

Siblingship tests are not as set in stone, because there are a lot of grey areas in regards to inheritance.  Full siblings theoretically share 50% of their DNA (under the assumption that 25% of the time they receive the same genes from the mother and 25% of the time they receive the same genes from the father), while half-siblings share on average 25% of their DNA.  Highly complex programs and highly trained DNA analyzers are required to determine these types of relations, since as the probabilities decrease, the chances of two individuals not sharing any or only several STR markers increases.  Therefore, for each marker its frequency in the general population must also be taken into account.

If you are looking to do a DNA test with a possible donor or half-sibling, Genetic Testing Laboratories has a $99 paternity test and $150 siblingship tests, which are done with either a cheek swab or blood sample from both parties (and with siblings, the mothers of both offspring is also preferable to increase accuracy).  They also keep their samples for 6 months after testing; so another test is not required for that time.

FamilyTree DNA is ideal for male offspring, since surname lineage can help trace the donor, and has a database of thousands of people using it for genealogical testing.

Another [non-profit] company called CaBRI, under Cayman Chemicals (founded by former donor Kirk Maxey), has started a Donor Gamete Achieve with relatively inexpensive DNA tests and they are building a database of offspring and donor’s DNA (similar to UKDonorLink), which if a match is found both parties are contacted.  They’ve started two projects, one for males (Donor-Y Project) and one for females (Donor-X Project). 

Males of course are quite simple to determine the donor as it’s the same, but females must have their mother’s DNA as well (and as many other family members as possible…siblings, etc).  From there they determine which X chromosome was inherited from mom based on her X chromosomes and the child’s as well as any other females or males on her side of the family, and through process of elimination determine which X chromosome was inherited from the donor.  The donor’s X-chromosome is then compared against all others in the database to look for matches.

And with that, happy gene hunting!