Virtual Twins: No Genetic Relationship

Virtual twins are children who are raised together, but have no genetic relationship. They are also very close to each in age, with most researchers defining virtual twins as children less than nine months apart in age. They can come into a family in a wide variety of ways, and they are a topic of interest to psychologists and other researchers, as they can be used to delve into the relationship between environment and genetics.

As scientific subjects, virtual twins provide a rich pool of material for researchers tackling the nature-versus-nurture question. Raised together essentially from birth, or at least since infancy, virtual twins may be genetic strangers, but they share an environment from an early point in life.

In a classic example of virtual twinning, a couple makes arrangements to adopt after struggling to have children, and then becomes pregnant. Rather than backing out of the adoption, the parents may choose to adopt as well as giving birth, giving their birth-child an adopted sibling. Virtual twins can also be created through adoption, with parents adopting two children of different parentage. Many researchers like to focus specifically on virtual twins adopted at a very young age, rather than older children adopted together.

For people interested in the nature vs. nurture argument, virtual twins can provide some interesting food for thought. Researchers who believe that environment plays a larger role than genetics would expect virtual twins to be very similar, since they are raised in the same environment. Studies suggest that they have fewer similarities than true genetic siblings, however, which suggests that genetics plays a heavy role in human development.

Although it is difficult to quantify the phenomenon, researchers say that virtual twins are an increasingly common result of Americans having children later in life, facing fertility issues and forming families through a patchwork of channels: adoptions, surrogate births, natural pregnancies and fertility treatments, which can lead to multiple births. Many parents, having struggled with infertility for years, pursue several avenues at once to increase their chances of having at least one child. If two adoptions or an adoption and a pregnancy work out at about the same time, the stage is set for virtual twins.

Peggi Ignagni of Oberlin, Ohio, had been trying to become pregnant for nine years when she and her husband, Tony, applied for a foster-care license, hoping they could adopt an infant after taking him into foster care. They got Nickholas when he was 3 days old but decided to proceed with in vitro fertilization, fearing that they might not be able to keep the boy. The fertility treatment worked, and Ignagni became pregnant with triplets who were born eight months after Nickholas. She and her husband, who owns a medical device company, now have four 6-year-olds. “At least they were all potty-trained within the same week,” she said.

In another case, Sara was adopted at birth by Deborah and Dave Curry, who are both retired from the Navy. The couple had tried having children for almost four years before they arranged for a private adoption. Deborah Curry became pregnant with Julie a month after Sara’s birth mother chose them as parents. When they left the hospital with Sara, they were stopped by a security guard and asked to explain why they were leaving with a newborn when Deborah Curry was obviously still pregnant.

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