Rebecca Compton Ph.D.

Adopting Reason

Mothering: It's Not About the Chromosomes

Recent ad campaigns by genetic testing companies miss the point of family.

Posted May 07, 2018

"The whole point of Mother's Day is you're with your family, your DNA!" exclaims an actress in the latest slick commercial from 23andMe, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company—seemingly oblivious to the many ways that families are formed. “We love mom genes” is the whimsical tag line. What better gift for that special woman on Mother’s Day than a shared cheek swab, a DNA test, the excitement of giving back what she first shared with you, your genes? Except when she didn’t give you that gift to begin with at all. Because not all mothers are genetic mothers, a fact that 23andMe’s blind devotion to the genome misses entirely.

Rebecca Compton
Source: Rebecca Compton


23andMe profits by peddling the idea that people’s essential identities can be discovered in their DNA. “Welcome to you” reads the logo on the testing kit. Why else would a consumer spend $99 for the privilege of submitting a biological specimen to a for-profit company? Consumers are unlikely to help 23andMe achieve the goal of building a vast database of genetic information, to be sold to researchers and pharmaceutical companies, unless they expect to get something in return. And what consumers are promised is no less than their identities.

Were your ancestors Vikings? Are you descended from Genghis Khan? Surely there must be secrets waiting to be revealed. In another recent ad campaign run jointly with Fox Sports, 23andMe even promises to tell you which teams to cheer in the World Cup: “Root for your roots!” by finding out which countries’ teams are “in your DNA.” Never mind that ancestral biology has little to do with the boundaries that define present-day soccer teams. Never mind that the nations fielding World Cup teams are multi-ethnic, as are many of the teams themselves. Find out where your loyalties belong. Your DNA will tell you.

How do you define family? Sociologists and anthropologists disagree on formal academic definitions, but some researchers at the University of Nevada decided to ask regular people. They put the question to an ethnically diverse group of undergraduates who rated 70 features according to “how central the feature is in your concept of family.” The features rated most highly were emotional and relational: love, trust, respect, support, acceptance, “always there,” and “lifelong/forever.” Among all 70 features, the one that people rated as least central to the concept of family was “blood-related.”

I didn’t give my son any chromosomes. I didn’t pass along his reddish-brown hair or his deep brown eyes or his nimble agility, and neither did his father. We honor those who did and respect his connection to them. I have given him, instead, my open arms, my watchful eye, my listening ear, my whole heart. Because "mother" is best defined by acts within relationships, not by strings of nucleic acids within cells.

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