Thursday, November 4, 2010

To Donor or not to donor, Part II

We (I'm talking as a culture here) are all pretty darned hung up on biology.  On some level, we really do seem to believe that our biology is what defines who we are, particularly in the context of our families.  We have many cultural narratives which speak of the tragedy of 'not knowing our roots' and what we really mean by such expressions is not being able to trace our biological line.  The very first thing people say of a baby (right after, is it a boy or a girl?)  is "who does she look like?" or  "Oh, she has so and so's eyes."  Or "Oh he totally looks like his daddy."   These assertions are, in part, due to (and also reinforcement of) our prizing of genetic connection over all others. 

So what is it that 'roots' us? What is it that defines a person?  What is it that defines a family?  While clearly there isn't a consensus on this issue, hence lawsuits by folks like Olivia Pratten, who I've spoken of previously.  Pratton is the child of parents who had fertility struggles and conceived her with the use of a sperm donor.  She is currently suing the BC government to change the legislation enforcing the anonymity of sperm donors.  Angela Campbell and Robert Leckey's article "Parentage is about more than DNA" in Thursday's Globe and Mail continues the scrutiny on Pratten's case and the issues surrounding it.  I am happy to say that I found it far less offensive than the article explored in To Donor or not to donor, Part I.  (In no small part because, you know, they didn't compare me to a rapist or war criminal or child stealer.  Anyhoo...)

As one might guess from their article's title, Campbell and Leckey challenge the notion put forward by Pratton and others that their biogical donor creates half of who they are, arguing that this is both a scientically wrong and socially driven idea:  "all humans have 99 per cent of their DNA in common. A parent and child share slightly more, 99.5 per cent."   

They continue on to note:

"The rhetoric of genetic connection risks erasing social bonds between parents and children. It implies that identity results from genetics. And the idea that genetic origin makes people who they are devalues diverse means by which people form families. Consider adoptive parents or parents who conceive through assisted conception. They may be gay or straight. Such parents are not mere caretakers of someone else’s genetic heritage. They contribute to their child’s identity."

*and after reading that paragraph, I heard the proverbial choir of angels singing*

Campbell and Leckey also point out some potential troubling features which could arise from the lawsuit - asking if children of donor insemination have the right to identify their anonymous donors, would the reverse also hold true?  Would donors then also have the right to trace their 'children'?  Is a donor's right to privacy to be held in less regard than a child's right to know the identity of their donor?  These questions are all valuable and worthy of further consideration. 

I don't doubt hat some adopted children and some donor-conceived children, like Pratton, feel like they are missing knowledge about 'who they are.' And I certainly don't mean to minimize feeling of pain or distress that has arisen for some around this issue.  But I do spend a great deal of time wondering how much of this feeling of a 'lack' is innate, and how much of this is due to our cultural insistance that a shared biology is the most important element of family, of history, of our rootedness.

Whatever the reasons behind the distress experienced by some kids who don't know their genetic ties, in the end, I strongly believe that we need to change our system in Canada to allow for donors to be "willing to be known" or anonymous (as I also believe is their right if they wish).  There must be a balance of rights for both donors and children of assisted reproduction.  For me, this sort of legislative change would be the best and fairest possible judicial outcome. 

I am also hoping though, that this case makes possible changes that go beyond the scope of government and judiciary.  I, like the authors of this article, would like to see a growing awareness of (and a shift away from) our cultural reliance on biology as the be-all-and-end-all of identity.  We are made of, and influenced by, so much  more than our chromosonal make-up.  Families are made of, and grow out of, so much more than "having so and so's eyes" or the attribution of personality quirks to one biological parent or another.  I'm sure every one of us has people who are non-biologically related whom we find just as much a part of our family (or more a part of our family) than those we are biologically related to.  Moreover, a biological connection to one's parents does not guarantee children a safe, loving and healthy childhood, nor does a lack of biological connection guarantee the reverse.  

I will support my children in whatever feelings they may (or may not) have about being born through the assistance of an anonymous sperm donor.  I will do this because it's my job to support them to the best of my ability in whatever paths and twists and ups and downs their lives take.    It's our job to try our best to support our kids without regard for how we feel about the paths they choose.  *Because that's what a parent does.*  I hope that someday the laws in our country might be changed so that if they and their donor wanted to meet, they could (though this might feel pretty strange to me, and undoubtably to their mommy as well).

But I will never, ever budge in my insistence that our cultural dependence of the bonds of biology is anything other than totally bunk.  I flinch, both inwardly and likely also visibly, when someone refers to my children's "biological father."  Jeezuz.  My children don't have a father, biological or otherwise.  Their donor (this is the term to use, folks) will never be and can never be their father.  Not in any way.  Not at all.  That's just the way it is.

If parents are born - it is through the process of being a parent, (and all of the joys and turmoils that process entails) - not by reason of sharing a few extra chromosomes.


  1. Hear hear! Thank you thank you THANK YOU for articulating this. My partner and I decided way back when that we'd eventually make babies with donor sperm, and I've discussed it with a few close friends. Now that our wedding is on the horizon, I'm suddenly getting a lot more curiosity from family members and acquaintances who want to know the specifics of our reproductive plans. Many of these people seem to give very little thought to their ignorant criticisms and biases, and I've struggled to articulate many of your points as well as you have here. Mostly now I avoid the topic, or jokingly tell them that we'll be circulating a donation jar out on the street.

  2. I'm with feralgeographer - thank you. It is often so difficult to articulate this view without seeming self-justifying or rationalizing, but you have accomplished this. And it is heartening to hear someone other sommerville speak to this issue. Thanks for drawing it to my attention!

  3. I agree. I come from a family where my dad is not biologically related to me but my biological father was a stranger. I understand the curiousity of who "created" you but not to replace the family in any way, shape or form. This is why it was important for us to choose an open id donor so that our children can find out the donor's true identity if they wish to do so. I'm confused about this Canadian law as the only banks we had available to us here in Toronto were American banks with Canadian distributors. Therefore, there are open id donors available within Canada. Are there Canadian banks in BC?

  4. Stacey, I think the only "true" Canadian bank now is Repromed and they ship all across Canada. They only use Canadian donors and more specifically, donors from the Toronto area.

    They are asked by the bank if they would consider contact with their offspring but most are hesitant due to lack of legislation protecting them from custody suits, etc.

  5. Our donor situation is different than yours, but the questions (and feelings) you raise are so challenging and close to my heart.

    Speaking from my own life, I think that most people experience a time of feeling like we don't fit in our families, and if that feeling can be explained at all through having different genes it can almost be a relief. But I also know that meeting my biological father actually confirmed for me that the family I grew up in was my "real" family.

    It'll be interesting and possibly heart-wrenching watching our daughter deal with these issues in her own life. But that will be her work--ours is to love her and care for her and do all the things that parents do, regardless of where her eyes came from. After all, what matters most is that they're hers.

  6. Spain is The most sperm donor country in the world. Transaction of sperm donor in that country is normal and not prohibited