Twofold

The singular world of twins and twin studies

The Switched-at-Birth Twins of the Canary Island

How are the twins, and what do they think of their amazing life events?

Most newborn twin and non-twin infants go home with their parents after birth, but some infants get switched accidentally. This usually happens when a hospital staff member removes an infant from a particular location (perhaps for a medical procedure) and returns him or her to the wrong place. It is not known how many such cases have occurred because we only hear about the ones that are discovered. I have been especially interested in those cases involving twins.

Only seven or eight switched-at-birth twin cases have been documented. Every one has involved identical twins because their matched physical appearance has led to the discovery. Switched-at-birth fraternal (non-identical) twins are much less likely to be discovered because of their different physical appearances. In Puerto Rico, one twin in an identical pair was switched with one twin from a fraternal pair, but it was the similarity of the separated identical twins that was responsible for their reunion (and the reunion of the fraternal twins.)

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In September 2009, I traveled to Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, to study switched-at-birth identical female twins (Begoña and Delia), reunited after twenty-eight years. As I explain in my 2011 book, Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth, Begoña had been mistaken for Delia by a sales person in a clothing store; this chance meeting prompted the sales person to arrange a meeting between them that evening. When the various friend and family members got together it was clear that the real twins were Begoña and Delia, not Begoña and Beatriz who had been raised as “fraternal” twins all their lives. In fact, Beatriz and Begoña were unrelated to one another and Beatriz’s real parents had been raising Delia.

When I learned about the case in 2008, I was intrigued by its many complex aspects. I wanted to understand the parents’ grief and shock upon discovering that the children they had believed were theirs’ belonged to a different family. I also wanted to explore Begoña and Delia’s evolving twinship and its effect on Beatriz. I was also curious as to how the Canarian Health Services would respond to the lawsuit that was brought against them by two attorneys representing the families.

In November 2012 I had a second opportunity to visit with the twins, their families and their attorneys. I was invited to a Congress in Madrid and Las Palmas can be reached by plan in about two in a half hours. This time my meetings included several formal sessions with the lawyers, but also more causal discussions at a party at the home of one of the twins. The twins’ case had settled in favor of the twins in 2009, but since then one of the attorneys had been representing Delia’s parents in another lawsuit against the health services. That case had settled in favor of both parents.

It was clear to me in 2012, as it was in 2009, that meeting a switched-at-birth twin is a very different type of reunion from that of most separated twins. Most separated twins grow up in different homes because of poor family resources, illegitimate birth or related causes. When such twins meet they are usually delighted to discover a biological relative, in particular a twin. Their separate rearing was purposeful and usually arranged in their best interests. In contrast, discovering a switched-at-birth twin is different because family ties can dissolve and self-concepts are seriously challenged. Everything that one thought was true about his or her family just is not. The switch was a careless accident, not an intentional or thoughtful act.

Here are some brief summaries of the thoughts and feelings of each of the three women involved. Additional details will be published in a forthcoming article in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics.

Begoña. Begoña was the twin who was raised by her biological family. She spoke of an unusual understanding she shares with her twin sister Delia even though they did not grow up together. Still, they lead separate lives, but are in contact by telephone. On this second visit I learned that both twins love dogs, but are less enthusiastic about the work involved in caring for them. Begoña remains close to her sister Beatriz, the unrelated “twin” with whom she was raised. However, because of their marked physical and behavioral differences she never felt that they were like most other twins.

Delia. Delia and Begoña thought the same way about their twin relationship. Delia feels more connected to Begoña than to the other members of her newly discovered biological family, calling it all “complicated.” Interestingly, when Delia became ill with cancer as a teenager, it turned out that neither her parents, nor her two younger sisters were compatible bone marrow donors. Now she knows why.

Beatriz. Beatriz devotes herself to helping her mother and younger brother who has Down syndrome. She feels that her mother is beginning to accept the fact that one of her twin daughters had been accidentally exchanged with another baby.

 Beatriz continues to have no contact with her biological parents. Like Begoña, Beatriz has never felt like a twin because of their differences.

I am still curious about the sales person who confused Begoña for Delia in the clothing store, the single event that led to their reunion and the discovery of the switch. This person was an acquaintance of Delia’s, not a close friend. I tried to meet her when I was in Gran Canaria in 2009, but I was not successful. I wonder what she think of the ways in which her discovery so deeply affected everyone’s lives.

A number of my of my friends and colleagues in Las Palmas helped me with these interviews, namely Jessica Crespo (professional translator) and Fernando Grijalvo Lobera (Psychology Professor, Universidad de Las Palmas). I also want to acknowledge the two attorneys for their time and attention. It is everyone’s hope that Someone Else’s Twin will be translated into Spanish so that it will reach a wider audience.

 

Nancy L. Segal, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Twin Studies Center, at California State University, Fullerton.

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