The Apple Never Falls Far From The Tree - How online ancestry services are uncovering long-covered roots.

13th October 2020 Family Law

In recent years, ancestry sites such as Ancestry.com and Findmypast.com have made home DNA testing readily accessible and increasingly common. In some households, it has even become part of a school project. Whilst for many, it has led to a fascinating insight into their history, for some, it has led to bombshell discoveries that their biological heritage and/or familial relationships are not what they had understood them to be. We have been consulted by a number of individuals and families looking to unpick the confusion and uncertainty caused by the discovery of a different biological ‘family’ to the one they have known, and stories across the media are increasingly common. There can be no doubt that such sites are changing, and indeed removing, the ability to conceal someone’s genetic origins. Whilst the scientific truth can be quick and easy to ascertain, the emotional impact can be a much more involved process.

There has always been a distinction between biological and psychological parenthood – step-families and adoptive families being prime examples. Legal parenthood adds another layer to the mix, and as we have discussed in the past on this blog, advances in fertility medicine mean it is not unusual for legal, biological and social parenthood to be split across various adults as against a “traditional” family unit where the 3 strands are held by one significant adult. It is not, however, only in cases of assisted conception that issues arise, and there are many cases of children born outside of a particular relationship, who have been raised within it, believing that their genetic origins match their social family unit, but later discover that not to be the case.

There have been several documentaries released recently which chart the journey of various adults tracing their origins and biological siblings. “The World's Biggest Family” is the latest work of long-standing campaigner Barry Stevens, who has been an avid advocate of the need to remove anonymity in donor conception.  “25 Siblings and Me” is a recent BBC documentary looking at how a donor-conceived adult starts to identity and contact multiple biological siblings born via sperm donation. Such works, of which there are many examples, chart the different emotional journey that people can experience when searching for details about their origins, along with the feelings of those they then find, who may not have themselves been aware. It is clear there can be a huge range of reactions; there is no right or wrong response, but there must always be sensitivity to the feelings of others and the fact they may need to react and deal with the news in a very different ways. Professional help can be hugely important, and helpful, for some people.

In family law there has never been a strict legal duty to tell someone the truth about their biological parentage, but the general view is that openness is important, not least as research suggests that dramatic revelations later in life are generally more detrimental than having an understanding of the truth, from the start. The prevalence of ancestry DNA sites, and the wide-reaching information they hold, even about people who have never themselves accessed them, means that regardless of any legal duty, it will be increasingly impossible, on a practical basis, to withhold someone’s biological identity from them. Barry Stevens recently expressed the view in an interview with Hey! Reprotech that “there's nothing to fear from openness. Or … there's less to fear from openness than from secrecy and lies. That's what I would say”.

There are numerous specialist groups who can help people affected by such issues explore their roots. There are also court applications that can be made to formally declare parentage or non-parentage, in certain circumstances. There can be little doubt that such cases can involve very complex emotions and that specialist guidance can be a valuable tool. Whether and how the law deals with issues of parenthood and anonymity in the future, as against scientific and social advances, remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that the issue can be ignored.   

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Cara Nuttall is a Partner located in Manchester Londonin our Family department

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