“There are more,” Mary-Claire King thinks every time that, in Seattle, she gets the news that another Argentine grandchild recovered their identity. “There are always more.”
King is the brilliant US geneticist who developed the grandparentage index in 1984, used today to identify the children of desaparecidos — those who were kidnapped, held in clandestine detention centers, and killed by the military dictatorship that took power between 1976 and 1983.
The de facto government abducted around 500 babies from the people they kidnapped, giving them up for adoption with forged identities in a process known as apropriación or “appropriation.” Until now, 133 grandchildren have “recovered” their identity and reconnected with their biological families. Eighty-two did so with the help of King’s grandparentage index.
“I tell myself — it’s number five, number six, number 133,” King told the Herald after participating in a panel at the Science Ministry in Buenos Aires. “But there are more — we need to recover the next one and the next one and the next one. There is always more work to do.”
Following King’s visit, a breakthrough in how the next generation will be able to recover their identity seems more likely.
Grandmothers, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
This week, King visited Argentina for the first time in 30 years, where she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires. King also toured the facilities of the National Bank of Genetic Data (BNDG, by its Spanish initials). The BNDG stores genetic samples of desaparecidos’ relatives, including the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (Abuelas), which are then compared to people who think they were “appropriated.”
There, scientists have started to forge a path to recover even more identities, by continuing King’s work. And King, of course, wants in.
Mariana Herrera Piñero, the director of the BNDG told the Herald that they are working on creating a great-grandparentage index. “There are many families whose data in the BNDG is incomplete and some grandchildren may have died,” she said. “But their identities are still [genetically] passed on.”
According to Herrera Piñero, there are increasingly more people who belong to the generation of the Abuelas’ great-grandchildren who are asking questions.
Herrera Piñero said that the BNDG is creating mathematical models and determining the genetic markers needed for the new index, using state-of-the-art forensic statistics and the latest advancements in genetics.
King found out about the new initiative on this trip and offered the BNDG scientists her expertise and laboratory in Seattle.
“Mary Claire is very interested in working with us,” Herrera Piñero said. “If she created an index, why wouldn’t she work in the next one? Due to her expertise, we are all below her. We will follow her lead.”
King also took advantage of the trip to hug Estela de Carlotto, the president of Abuelas. De Carlotto was one of the grandmothers who, in 1982, asked King the question she would eventually answer: “Can we identify our grandchildren through our blood?”
“Science, the technique itself, is neutral. But the reasons for which we use it are not neutral,” King told the press in the Ministry. “The work for the Abuelas was an example of using science for human rights for good purposes on behalf of the people. The questions most important for us to address, in my view, are the questions that come from the people.”
During Wednesday’s event, De Carlotto recalled their first meetings, one of which was famously documented in a picture that shows both of them and another Abuela, Nélida Navajas, in King’s Seattle laboratory. That picture was projected on a screen behind De Carlotto.
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“We see you there working with your hands and your devices, and now we have you here,” she said. “Having you here, my dear friend, is a privilege.”
De Carlotto thanked her profusely. “Mary-Claire, thank you, because you allowed us to find our grandchildren,” she said. “Even mine.” Ignacio Montoya Carlotto was the 114th recovered grandchild, discovering his identity in 2014.
King met with grandchildren whose identity her technique helped recover. “It was a meeting, a hug, that I won’t forget in my lifetime,” Leonardo Fossati, one of those grandchildren, told the Herald. Fossatti said that King knows “every story from every grandchild.”
“I had seen her in a lot of black-and-white pictures,” Fossatti said. “And now, I have her image in color in my mind’s eye, with a big smile.”
Fossatti said that he had always had doubts about his identity. He remembered looking at himself in the mirror at age eight, and thinking that there was another world behind it. He voluntarily submitted a blood sample to the BNDG after becoming a father at 20.
“I didn’t want my kid to inherit my doubts,” he said.