© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

When DNA Testing Delivers A Surprise

Robert Benzinger didn’t see this coming.

His brother, Carl-Eric, asked him, a few months back if he had a daughter in Hawaii. You see, Carl-Eric had taken a 23 and Me DNA test and the results showed he had a niece in Hawaii. One question led to another and Robert soon discovered he did indeed have a daughter, now 41, living in Hawaii.

“I was in shock when I first found out,” said Robert. “But then I was immediately overwhelmed by joy. I had two sons and I love them but I’ve always wanted a daughter.”

Back in the late ‘70’s Robert had a brief fling in Los Angeles with a woman from Hawaii. The result was a baby girl, Kalaa Clarke, that no one ever told him about.

While Robert was “in shock,” his wife, Zoe, said she wasn’t surprised.

“My husband is an awesome guy,” said Zoe Benzinger. “I’m not the only one that’s ever loved him, so we just embraced it.”

She conceded it “was a little bit of a shock at first,” but said it didn’t take long for her “to come around.”

The Benzingers invited Kalaa, and her daughter, Welina, to Annapolis over the Christmas holidays.

Kalaa, who took them up on the invitation, said she initially “felt bad for the father that raised me.”

“I thought I knew my father,” she said during a visit to the Benzinger home. “I did not know that my father who raised me was not my father.”

She said the man who raised her hasn’t said anything about the news because he doesn’t know. “And he’s not going to know.”

While things seem to have gone well in Annapolis, it appears there are still issues to resolve in Hawaii. And Professor Hank Greely, who manages Stanford University’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, says that’s one of the problems with the DNA testing craze.

“Before sending your spit off, or buying a kit for a friend or relative, you should give some thought to the fact that maybe you’ll learn things that you really didn’t want to know,” he warned.

Greely says that while you might find out about a child you never knew you had you might also learn about potentially sensitive health information.

“If you just bought it for ancestry, they don’t give you the health stuff, but the health stuff is there,” he said. “All they have to do is go back and re-analyze the results, have the computer look at different things. They’ve got the data. They could use it to look at health-related issues as well.”

But it’s not just sensitive health information. The Office of the Secretary of Defense recently put out a memo advising military personnel to avoid commercial genetic testing services, contending that genetic information can compromise “force readiness.”

Dr. Amy McGuire, director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine, says the genealogy companies’ massive data bases could potentially identify just about anyone of European descent living in the US through a third cousin.

“That really creates a national security risk if you are in a particular job that requires undercover work,” she said.

And there’s more of this kind of testing coming in the future, McGuire predicts. 

“The nature of humans is to be curious about who we are and who we belong to. I don’t see this going away, I see it expanding in the coming years.”

Back at the Benzinger’s, Kalaa says she’s happily surprised to have found her biological father and her stepmother.

“I’m most grateful for my stepmother, who’s had this family with my father, made this beautiful home and beautiful family and with open arms received us,” she said. “She to me is such a hero.”

And Robert’s wife Zoe says she’s happy as well.

“I feel like I found my tribe with my new stepdaughter and my step granddaughter,” she explained.