The Ethicist: Can I Contact the Grandkids I Discovered on a DNA Website?

August 26, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Can I Contact the Grandkids I Discovered on a DNA Website?”.

I recently found out that I am a grandfather, but I did not find out in the usual way. A few years ago I had my DNA tested using an ancestry website. Some time later, the website showed I was closely related to two other registered users, and I found the person who managed their accounts. By looking that person up on social media, I soon realized the two ancestry-website accounts were probably those of my grandchildren.

The first thing I thought was that everyone in my family knew but me. I called my ex-wife, and she was just as shocked as I was. The woman’s Facebook page let me figure out which of our sons might be the father, given that some details of their lives overlapped. My initial reaction was that my son didn’t want anyone to know, so I shouldn’t ask him about it. Then I changed my mind and emailed the mother through the website. She was shocked that her identity had been discovered and said that there was an agreement with the father not to disclose any information and that he wasn’t involved in their lives, though it sounded like his wish more than hers. She would not tell me who the father was.

I was hesitant to contact my son for several reasons, but my ex-wife decided to ask him anyway. He admitted it, but he said he was helping out friends as a sperm donor and didn’t want anyone in our family to know. He was upset that he had been found out.

Was it right for him to do this and not tell his family? Grandparents now can’t be around their grandchildren. I also feel that I am lying to my other kids, who won’t know their nieces or nephews. Should I tell them? Name Withheld

My response: All that explanation and only two yes or no questions. If only people asked more open-ended questions.

There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

“Should I tell them?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

You didn’t ask, but I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

I wish I could just tell you to go ahead and dive into the lives of these children. As the proud great-uncle of three infants, I’m extremely conscious of the delights of participating in the lives of a new generation. But there are many considerations at stake here. Your son — let’s be clear — did nothing wrong. He was willing to help his friends have children, but he didn’t want to be a parent. His friends agreed to those terms. The children are in the care of someone he trusts. Why is that anyone else’s business?

It doesn’t change the situation if, as you suspect, the birth mother would be happy for your son to play a role in the children’s lives. She agreed not to involve him, and it would be wrong for her to go back on her word. People discover all the time that it’s harder than they anticipated to keep their promises. That doesn’t relieve them of their obligations. If she wants to change the terms, she should discuss it with your son. It isn’t for you to intervene.

Of course, the children here could develop an interest later in finding out about their paternal biological relatives. The parents, biological and legal, most likely considered this possibility before entering into the arrangement; either way, this development could one day occasion another discussion. The children’s interest in knowing who their father is, assuming they haven’t been told, has a substantial weight. If he has kept his paternity from them, I’d urge him to reconsider this decision, at least when they’re older, whether or not he wants a relationship with them.

But to argue that the kids have a right to a relationship with their father — or even a right to learn his identity — is to argue for a system in which many current sperm and egg donors wouldn’t participate. (The same goes for many of the recipients.) Without these agreements, that is to say, these and many other children wouldn’t have existed. And that is one thing we have to weigh when deciding if such agreements should be respected.

Nobody — not grandparents, not uncles and aunts, not cousins — has an automatic right to be in the lives of those to whom they’re genetically related. Otherwise every adoption would come with a crowd of compulsory genetic relatives. If we want adoptions to occur, it’s unwise to burden adoptive families with all these obligations, absent some affirmative reason for doing so. It has to be a choice.

Your son made a decision he was entitled to make and wanted to keep it private. You have managed to find out about it. He has told you he didn’t want you or the family to know and doesn’t want this to go further. Keeping confidences is difficult in families, needless to say. But think about it: Do you really want all your kinfolk to know everything that an investigator searching the available sources could unearth about you?

The answer to your final question is: no. Don’t tell anyone else what you’ve learned unless your son gives you permission. Even if you gained a relationship with a pair of grandchildren, it could be at the price of ending one with your son.


My family shares a summer home with relatives. We love it there, but as our children get older we are facing a quandary. Their uncle self-medicates his debilitating anxiety with drinking and pot-smoking, though he rarely appears truly intoxicated. He steps outside to smoke, but even so, he reeks, as do his bedroom and belongings. We’ve encouraged him to seek treatment over the years.

Now that our children are older, they can recognize smells and notice his drinking. Do we discuss their uncle’s clear dependency with our kids in an age-appropriate way, even though their uncle does not himself recognize his behavior as dependency? Or do we respect the fact that their uncle doesn’t see himself as an addict and simply continue to insist that he do more to hide his drinking and pot-smoking from them?

We have always talked to our children about being careful and thoughtful as they begin to see drugs and drinking enter their own social situations. We hope and expect our children to be open with us, but how open should we be with them? Name Withheld

My response: Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell the kids about what’s in front of them anyway.

As with the above letter, there is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

I recommend a different perspective than asking others what to do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

A failure to recognize that you are an addict is a common feature of addiction. So you needn’t defer to the uncle’s judgment about himself. As long as you’re confident about your assessment of his situation, you certainly should discuss it with those of your children who are old enough to understand what you’re talking about. (If his drug use involves self-medicating for anxiety, as you believe, you’ll need to explain this to them too.) Airing the issue with strangers might breach his entitlement to privacy; sharing it with family members who will be spending time with him does not.

Truthfulness about important matters is a core element of what we owe to those we love. You’ve obviously conveyed this commitment to your children. There are sometimes reasons to keep a secret, as the previous letter shows. But violating this commitment in order to protect their uncle’s self-image would be a bad idea.

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