When Your Ancestry Test Entangles Others

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Stephen Wald took a home DNA test in 2018, hoping to explore his family ancestry with his two young children. Instead, he learned a family secret: The man who raised him was not his biological father. Several days of intense online sleuthing for more details yielded another surprise, the identity and phone number of an apparent half-sister, Julie Gale. [Source: WSJ]

Mr. Wald, then 60 years old and a New York City-based real-estate broker, was well aware of how it felt to be unmoored by DNA test results. “I knew I was delivering big news,” he says. But he didn’t hesitate to make the call. “There was no ‘Should I not do this?’’’ he says. “I was on a mission. That was it.”

Only later did it fully hit Mr. Wald that, in his quest to discover his own origin story, he might disrupt the narrative of someone else’s family—or disturb other members of his own.

Consumer DNA testing has taken off in recent years. Millions of people have spit in a tube or swabbed their cheeks, enticed by prices under $100 and marketing campaigns that focus on the recreational aspect of finding out about your family history, like the man in the ad for AncestryDNA who “switched my lederhosen for a kilt” after the test revealed that his family’s lineage was Scottish, not German. The emphasis is often on self-exploration; the companies MyHeritage and 23andMe (for the 23 pairs of human chromosomes) embody the idea in their very names.

Stephen Wald with his new half-sister Julie Kalt Gale (right) and the sister he grew up with, Karen Wald Mead. Photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien for The Wall Street Journal

Stephen Wald with his new half-sister Julie Kalt Gale (right) and the sister he grew up with, Karen Wald Mead.

Photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien for The Wall Street Journal

Yet the tests also have implications for others and can expose secrets hidden for decades, including infidelity, infertility or adoption. In Mr. Wald’s case, his DNA report was missing a close relative who should have been on its list of close genetic matches; he knew that she had taken the same test. Reaching out to people on the list whose names he did not recognize, he was ultimately led by one of them to Ms. Gale.

When an individual’s right to know competes with someone else’s right to privacy, who gets to decide? Medicine and science usually rely on ethical frameworks that give precedence to personal autonomy. Someone is informed of the risks and benefits of a medical procedure and then gives or withholds consent to proceed. Privacy is paramount; a person determines whether and to whom to reveal medical test results. When it comes to the ethics of DNA secrets, though, consumers are often left to work things out on their own.

Our DNA is unique to each of us; tiny changes in letters of the genetic code help to explain why we are different from others. And yet, we also share swaths of DNA in common with our ancestors, living relatives and future generations. There is no way around the fact that one person’s tale is invariably intertwined with the tales of many others. “You are never the sole author of your narrative,” says Françoise Baylis of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, who studies the ethics of new genetic technologies.

DNA secrets raise unique challenges because they may involve people who are biologically connected and yet complete strangers. Unlike a memoirist or autobiographer weighing how much to reveal, there may not be feelings of familial duty that grow out of shared personal history or worries about encountering people again at family events.

A medical professional places samples in sperm bank for storage and analysis. Photo: Alamy

A medical professional places samples in sperm bank for storage and analysis.

Photo: Alamy

The sheer size of consumer DNA databases—estimated at over 25 million people already—means that even people who choose not to get tested can be identified through DNA uploaded into genealogy databases by relatives. Law enforcement, genealogists and individuals trying to solve family secrets have all used DNA data, public family trees and social media, among other resources, to home in on the identities of people who may not want or expect to be found.

In trying to address this reality, 23andMe launched a support page last year called “Navigating Unexpected Relationships,” which includes resources for counseling. “We’re transparent in communicating to customers what they may learn,” said Andy Kill, a 23andMe spokesman. Ancestry says that it has a special team dedicated to helping with sensitive queries about unexpected results. “We take our responsibility towards our customers—and the potential impact of complex discoveries—very seriously,” said Ancestry spokeswoman Gina Spatafore.

Alondra Nelson, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. who has written extensively about the ethics of DNA testing, has argued for a model that recognizes the “social power” of DNA tests. Dr. Nelson is a co-chair of the National Academy of Medicine’s new Committee on Emerging Science, Technology and Innovation, one of whose stated goals is to find a framework to better address the ethical questions raised by developments such as DNA testing. She suggests that individuals who take the tests should consider ethics through a broader lens, asking themselves “who else has value and who else matters besides me?”

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More people are taking home DNA tests to learn about their background. For some, the results can be not only unexpected, but can radically change their lives. WSJ’s Amy Dockser Marcus explains. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann/WSJ

Gil Brodsky wrestled with these questions after taking a DNA test and learning in June 2018 that the man who raised him was not his biological father. Testing companies allow members who give permission to be contacted to send messages to one another within the site, and Dr. Brodsky soon received several notes from people who pointed out that they were relatives and offered to share more information.

After a Father’s Day celebration with his family, Dr. Brodsky, who is 68 years old, finally called one of the people who had reached out. They spent 90 minutes on the phone. The woman he had called explained that the parents of a large number of DNA-matched relatives lived in the Philadelphia area and had used artificial insemination with sperm donation to conceive—all from the same donor, as it turned out. They had formed a private Facebook group, and they were inviting Dr. Brodsky to join. At the time there were 30 half-siblings in the group. Now the number is up to 46, Dr. Brodsky says.

Some of the half-siblings have grown close. They attend an annual family reunion. Two half-brothers ran a marathon together. Several spent hours consoling a half-sibling whose spouse passed away. But when Dr. Brodsky decided that he wanted to tell his story publicly at his synagogue in Needham, Mass., he wrestled with how to do it for more than a year.

When it comes to the ethics of DNA secrets, consumers are often left to work things out on their own.

Not everyone in the sibling group wants the identity of the donor, their biological father, to get out. Some of Dr. Brodsky’s new half-siblings have not yet discussed the DNA findings with the fathers who raised them or with their children. He broached the dilemma one evening at a dinner in Boston with three of his new half-siblings. They told him that it was also his story and he should do what he thought was right. “I felt relieved,” Dr. Brodsky said.

In crafting his speech, Dr. Brodsky took into account the continuing discussion among the half-siblings about disclosure. There is a rough agreement that members should let the group know they plan to tell the story publicly. They can share general statistics, such as the high number of half-siblings that are doctors, as the donor had been—but not give out information that might reveal identities. In the end, the only father Dr. Brodsky named in his speech last November was the man who raised him, Nat Brodsky. He included a line from the biblical story about Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac that particularly resonated: “And the two of them walked together.”

“When I say, ‘the two of us walked together,’ that’s my father, and I’m talking about Nat Brodsky,” he told the congregation. Later, Dr. Brodsky said that his deepening relationship with some of the half-siblings influenced the final narrative. “As I lived with the story longer, it evolved,” he said.

Mr. Wald’s story has also changed over time. The New York real-estate broker first reached out to Ms. Gale, the woman he suspected was his half-sister, one late afternoon in March 2018, during a quiet moment at work. “My heart was racing as I dialed,” he said.

When Ms. Gale answered the phone, Mr. Wald said, “I need to talk to you.” He told her about his DNA test and his discovery that the man who raised him was not his biological father. “I believe I am your half-brother,” he told her. When she asked what he wanted, he said he was interested in learning more about his father, and if she was interested, in making a connection with her.

“This is a lot to handle,” Ms. Gale responded. “Give me a little time. Can I call you in a few days?” Ms. Gale was driving with her husband and two of their children to the airport to pick up another child when Mr. Wald reached her. She was shocked. “I was at the moment thinking my father had an affair, and I don’t know if I want to talk to this person,” she said.

Later, Ms. Gale called her mother and asked if it was possible that while working as a doctor at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital in the late 1950s, her father, Bill Kalt, had been a sperm donor? Her mother said he had been. Many young doctors supplemented their income with money from sperm donation then, she told her daughter. Ms. Gale searched for a photo of Mr. Wald online. “He looked just like my dad,” she said.

A few days after Mr. Wald’s call, Ms. Gale offered to meet. They had lunch at the Harmonie Club in New York City, where Mr. Wald is a member, and had an instant rapport. They talked for hours. Ms. Gale shared stories about her father, who had recently passed away. Seeing Mr. Wald’s physical resemblance to him and learning that the two men shared common interests moved her. “It’s sort of like my father is still here,” she said.

Julie Kalt Gale at age 3 with her father Bill Kalt—Stephen Wald’s biological father—in 1959.

Photo: Courtesy Kalt Family

Over the past year, their connection has deepened. For Mr. Wald’s birthday, Ms. Gale gave him a pair of her father’s cuff links. Mr. Wald attended Ms. Gale’s 40th wedding anniversary party.

But Mr. Wald’s discovery did not only change Ms. Gale’s family narrative; it also changed life for his older sister, Karen Wald Mead.

Ms. Mead had no interest in DNA tests. When Mr. Wald first told her that he had taken a DNA test, she asked him, “Why would you do that? What are you looking for?”

After Mr. Wald learned that their father was not his biological parent, Ms. Mead reluctantly took a DNA test too. The results upset her. She and Mr. Wald are half, not full, siblings; she has a different sperm donor, who is also deceased. When she reached out to her donor’s children, one did not respond and another talked to her briefly on the phone. They haven’t talked again.

Mr. Wald’s closeness with Ms. Gale has raised complicated emotions for Ms. Mead. “Julie is lovely, and I am happy for Stephen, but I don’t like it,” said Ms. Mead. “This is my brother, this is who I grew up with. It was always us. A little piece of me feels like now he has somebody else.”

Recently, the siblings were talking together in Ms. Mead’s kitchen when Mr. Wald pulled out his phone. He wanted to show his sister recent photos of him and Ms. Gale together. “I love you, and I am really happy you found Julie, but I don’t want to see them,” Ms. Mead told him. In the new family story that is emerging, she sometimes wonders, “Where does this leave me?”

Recently, Mr. Wald noticed that a new genetic match, another half-sibling, popped up on his DNA test account. This time around, Mr. Wald did not immediately reach out to his new relative.

Now that he knows Ms. Gale, he feels an obligation to her. “I have a nice relationship with Julie,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to drag her into something.”

Ms. Gale isn’t sure that she wants to make the emotional effort to build up another relationship. She isn’t quite ready to change her family story yet again. She won’t try to stop Mr. Wald if he ultimately decides to reach out to the new half-sibling, but says, “I would expect him to tell me he is doing it.” Mr. Wald agrees. “The story doesn’t belong only to me.” [Source: WSJ]

Write to Amy Dockser Marcus at amy.marcus@wsj.com

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