Wisconsin resident Alissa Broughton was adopted at birth, and what started as a quest for her family medical history ended with a reunion with her biological siblings.
Broughton’s idea to use a genetic testing service surfaced at a routine physical in January. She recalls her doctor’s amazement that at 35 she had no information about her family medical history. He had used 23andMe himself and mentioned it to Broughton.
In addition to the more well-known 23andMe ancestry test, which breaks down a customer's ancestral origins from around the world, the company also offers a health risk report. This report includes genetic risk for diseases like Celiac, late-onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; breast cancer risk related to BRCA1 & BRCA2 genes; genetic carrier status for cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and hereditary hearing loss; and a "wellness report" that covers topics like sleep, weight, muscle composition and lactose intolerance.
This genetic health report can be particularly appealing for an adoptee who lacks traditional information about family history of — and therefore susceptibility to — certain diseases.
Once on the 23andMe site, Broughton was presented with an additional option: check a box to opt-in to the “DNA Relatives” service.
The relative finder provides 23andMe users with a list of names of people they share DNA with, provided those people had also taken a 23andMe test and opted-in to use the DNA Relatives service. It also predicts their relationship. All told the cost of the services is about $140. At least one other service, ancestry.com, offers a comparable relative finder, without the full health report, for about $100.
Broughton got her results in April. Her health history looked great. And she matched with a biological half-sister: Jesse Bablitch in La Crosse.
She reached out and got a response. Bablitch was surprised to hear from her, but not surprised that she existed. She and her two brothers had been adopted, as well, and were raised by a family in Milwaukee.
She also knew about the biological half-sister her mother had given up for adoption at 16. She told Broughton, “I didn’t know where to look for you.”
Chatting over Facebook Messenger since April, Broughton and Bablitch decided earlier this month that they should get the four siblings together to meet face-to-face.
Before agreeing to the meeting, Broughton talked to her mom in Stanley to make sure she was OK with it. She says her parents were “pretty excited about it, and very supportive.”
The siblings decided to meet for a weekend July 14-15 in La Crosse, in between Broughton's home in Stanley and brothers Jeremy and Jacob who live in the Milwaukee area. They also invited their maternal grandparents.
Broughton says about their meeting, “I was very nervous. My three siblings grew up together, so I was the outsider coming in. But it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. We had a connection right away. Even during the family picture, we could see that we all had the same eyes. We’ve been living two hours away, and we had no idea.”
She says they’ve already been talking about getting back together again, this time with their spouses.
She's also been able to get in touch with her biological mother, who lives in Illinois. They talk on the phone and email and plan to meet face-to-face in September.
“I celebrated my adoption with my family my whole life. This just rounds out the whole family,” Broughton said.
A word of caution
Broughton’s reunion with the Bablitch family seems to have gone as well as could have been hoped for.
But many 23andMe users check the “DNA Relatives” box without giving serious consideration to the possibility of a surprising or even scandalous result.
The 23andMe website warns, "In rare cases, participation in DNA Relatives may reveal that you are related to someone unexpected, or that you are not related to someone in the way that you expected. Consider this before you opt in to this feature."
For example, in 2014, Vox reported that a 23andMe customer (who preferred to remain anonymous) found he had a half-brother. When it was revealed that his father had kept secret the child he had conceived and given up for adoption before marrying his mother, it resulted in his parents’ divorce.
23andMe reportedly estimated that “so far 7,000 users have discovered that their parents weren't who they thought they were, or that they had siblings they never knew existed.”
In the end, 23andMe’s “DNA Relatives” tool seems like an opportunity for families to reconnect with lost relatives. But for those not seeking new revelations about parents or siblings, perhaps the box best remain unchecked.
Follow Anna Groves on Twitter: @annamgroves