Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, DNA tests as records of identity

Did you read the article about the twins, both boys, born 4 minutes apart, one of whom is a U.S. citizen and one is not? If not, here is a summary: A legally married male same-sex couple, one with dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship and the other an Israeli citizen, were living in Canada. Wanting children, they combined an anonymous donor’s eggs with the sperm of the two men, and a surrogate “carried and delivered” their twins 16 months ago in Canada. The couple decided to move to California, so they went to the U.S. Consulate in Toronto to get U.S. passports for their sons, bringing their marriage certificate and the twins’ birth certificates. The consular official said the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act requires “a blood relationship between a child and the U.S. citizen parent in order for the parent to transmit U.S. citizenship” and told the U.S. citizen that he “would have to undergo a DNA test to prove a biological link to each twin,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The results of the test showed that one of the twins is the biological son of the U.S. citizen and the other is the biological son of the Israeli citizen. Armed with that information, the U.S. issued a U.S. passport to one twin and denied the other. The couple, now living in California, are suing the U.S. government.

Think for a minute of the number of babies who may have been conceived outside a verified system of parentage: for example, heterosexual couples who use assisted reproduction in a foreign country; the non-citizen wife who has an affair with another non-citizen but whose husband is a citizen (laws in many jurisdictions presume a husband is the father of his wife’s children). The possibilities are, today, quite endless. In the past, would any consular official or registrar even think of asking for documentation of biological parentage? But now, because DNA tests are common, a new element has arisen: the record of DNA testing.

Archivists have long argued that knowing your past is an important element in a healthy life, whether of the person or the nation. Records of DNA tests challenge that assertion. People who take a DNA test learn the scientific makeup of the genes they carry, and testing companies will provide a list of countries or regions where the predominant genetic traits match their genetic makeup. As the Washington Post recently reported, surprising DNA test results elicit “a range of emotions,” from joy to curiosity to denial.  The ability to “reverse engineer” the DNA of the dead (see “medical records” below), the ambitious project of the World Economic Forum to create a databank of DNA of all living things (same section) and the Guatemala project to create a national DNA bank (“Guatemala” below) mean that the unsettling of personal assumptions of “who I am” is sure to continue. And as archives, like that of the International Committee of the Red Cross, begin to manage quantities of DNA records, archivists will continue to be central to the stories of genetics and geography that people tell about themselves and their families.