Telling the Truth

On a number of occasions people have commented on the importance of telling the truth in one context or another.    People have talked about the need for accurate birth certificates (see the comments here or you can look at things tagged “birth certificate” if you like) or being honest with kids about the use of gamete donors, etc.   I thought it might be useful to collect some of my own thoughts about the value of truth in these matters.

Now as it happens, I am rather a stickler when it comes to telling the truth.   I don’t mean I’m above telling the occasional white lie (“Yes, I like your new haircut”), but as to important things, I strive to be as truthful as possible, even when that is hard. 

In this, I am strongly influenced by a magnificent essay by Adrienne Rich.   It’s in her book On Lies, Secrets and Silence and is called “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.”    (It’s really a terrific essay and I recommend it to everyone.)  Her main point, at least as I recall it, is that the liar generally lies to protect herself/himself from uncomfortable situations or difficult conversations.  Thus lying is essentially a selfish and cowardly act.  

Given this base, it should not be surprising that I believe it is generally important to tell children the truth.    Of course, there are exceptions.   Perhaps for a while you want a child to believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.   That generally requires you to be slightly less than truthful.   Similarly, most parents have at one time or another admired their children’s art work in ways that might not be scrupulously honest.   I see no harm in this sort of thing. 

But the topics on this blog concern much bigger matters.    If a child is adopted or was concieved using third-party gametes I think it is important to be honest with a child about that.  

That said, honesty about these things means different things at different ages.   It’s the same as sex education (another thing about which I believe parents ought to be honest.)  What you tell a three-year-old is not what you tell a ten-year-old or what you tell a fifteen-year-old.  Kids need honest answers that address their concerns at whatever age they happen to be.   You can offer some (truthful) information and see if the child wants to know more.  

Apart from my principled stance on honesty, I think there’s a completely pragmatic reason for honesty–the child will very likely find these things out eventually and then will understand that the parent was less than honest.  The consequences of that discovery can be far more severe than careful exposure to  whatever the truth at issue is.  

Interestingly, I think this honesty may come more easily to single-parents and lesbian/gay couples than it does to heterosexual couple.   The child of a single parent or a same-sex couple must know quite early on that she/he was not conceived and born in the commonly assumed manner.   Deceit is not an option.  

For heterosexual couples, deceit is an option and it may well be a tempting one.   Still, I think the better (and braver) course is not to take that option.  And I think perhaps our social norms are shifting this way.  Surely honesty about adoption is more common now than it was in my own childhood.  

This doesn’t mean that every use of ART needs to be disclosed in the same way.   If a heterosexual couple used fertility drugs, for example, or even IVF and a subsequent transfer of the embryo into the woman’s own womb, I’m not sure if a child needs to know that.  

This doesn’t actually answer the birth certificate problem.  While I can certainly agree that a birth certificate should be accurate and honest, the question is what the certificate purports to show.    

In most states, despite what it is called, a birth certificate is supposed to show who the legal parents of a child are.   That’s why new certificates get issued on adoption.   (It may well be that this practice arose in an age where adoption was frequently concealed.  I do not know.)    Perhaps this should change.    But change won’t be brought by insisting the certificates be honest.  It will come about by insisting that the certificates show something other than legal parentage–perhaps the name of the woman who actually gave birth, perhaps the name of the original legal parent(s) of the child.


11 responses to “Telling the Truth

  1. True. I’d also add that parents and genetic donor fathers/mothers chose anonymity to protect themselves from uncomfortable situations or difficult conversations. Thus anonymity is essentially a selfish and cowardly act.

    • Here I disagree. I’ve covered this in greater details in earlier posts, but where a donor is recognized as a legal father there are very important reasons to choose an anonymous donor if you don’t want to be parenting with that person. (This is why I’ve said before that those who favor using known donors need to think carefully before they assert that donors must be fathers.)

      You can read more here:
      or you can look at the entries tagged “sperm donor.”

      I do not think it is cowardly to take measures to protect your family. I think honesty would require you to be prepared to explain why you made the choice you did (to the child) at some point. In a state where donors are deemed to be legal parents, it may be a difficult choice.

      I understand that some readers will disagree with me and will readily conclude that the use of an anonymous donor does far more harm than an nwanted extra parent would. This is something we disagree about. And perhaps most importantly, it is something many people using donor gametes might disagree about.

  2. Julie, I fail to understand why choosing an anonymous donor rather than identity release protects families. An offspring only gets identity release at age eighteen and a donor never gets the details of the families he is donating to. My real understanding of why couples both lesbian and hetero chronically choose an anonymous donor is for the simple fact that they never want their child to know the donor and they also don’t want to acknowledge that the donor is connected to their child. The choice of an anonymous donor is thus a deep selfishness and conscious intention to deprive the potential child of a connection to his/her paternal heritage. It is nothing less than child abuse!

    • Sorry. I have perhaps not been sufficiently clear here. In the situation you describe (identity release donor at 18) there is no danger of interference with the child’s family. (And where this option exists, I’d love to know how frequently it is chosen.)

      The critical phrase in my earlier reply was “where a donor is recognized as a legal father.” If the donor is known and has parental rights, that does pose a real threat to the autonomy of the child’s other parent or parents. I know many couples who choose anonymous donors in order to avoid this problem. I know lawyers who counsel their clients to be extremely cautious using known donors IN A STATE WHERE THE DONOR WILL HAVE PARENTAL RIGHTS.

      I’m not sure where your understanding of the motivations of the individuals or couples comes from, but given the variation in state laws it’s awfully hard to make that generalization. Especially for lesbian couples who live in states where only one mother will have legal rights and/or the donor will have legal rights, there are many purely pragmatic reasons for choosing an anonymous donor.

  3. Although, personally, I think it’s morally and ethically wrong to intentionally bring a person into the world who will intentionally be denied loving meaningful relationships with their bio/genetic-father (or bio/genetic mother) and extended family – from birth – I realize that it could never be legally wrong. That being said, I do think there might be a good legal case to ban complete institutionalized anonymity (in the US and elsewhere) and only allow identity release ‘donors’ at the age of majority (18).

    I understand the legal concerns involved with known ‘donors’ while an offspring is under the age of 18 BUT aren’t there other ways parents and ‘donors’ might be able to get around this through legal contracts/agreements – so this practice can be more like an ‘open adoption’? I really have no idea but I’d love to know.

    • IF we said that donors were not legal parents then you could far more easily encourage arrangments where donors were (or could be) known to the children at some age or other. You might even be able to mandate that the donor information be available to the child when the child turned a specific age or perhaps in the event of some sort of extreme medical need. (I think you’d need to structure a medical need provision so that the power was in the hands of the child/parents rather than the donor.)

      I’m not sure, but I believe this is the current arrangment in the UK–certainly anonymous donations are now banned and it looks to me like donors are not legal parents. If I’m correct on that second point, then it’s clearly possible to do it.

      Contracts cannot be used to turn a parent into a non-parent, so if the law provides that a donor is a parent, you cannot alter that by private arrangment.

      • Julie wrote: “IF we said that donors were not legal parents then you could far more easily encourage arrangments where donors were (or could be) known to the children at some age or other.”

        I think there would be a much more persuasive legal argument to handle ‘donor/vendor’ conception as a form of adoption. The term ‘sperm/egg donor’ is just dehumanizing and demeaning to every form of person. I am reposting my thoughts on this from this thread on your blog (

        “I firmly believe that anonymity must be banned and the word “father” and “mother” NEED to be incorporated into these genetic parenthood relinquishments in order to prevent further genetic reductionism.

        I do not endorse the simple legal term “sperm/egg donor” (vendor) or “surrogate” as legal definitions. Instead I would recommend using a legal term such as “relinquishing genetic father/mother through pre-conception adoption” or “relinquishing gestational mother through surrogacy adoption”.”

        I think this form of family building would be MUCH more palatable to the general public and society if it was referred to and handled in a more respectful and humanistic way by considering this as form of adoption – utilizing words that are more respectful to the meaning and identity of the individuals involved in and produced by these practices than using legal terms such as ‘sperm’, ‘egg’, ‘DNA’, ‘genetic’ etc. which really are discriminating and demeaning.

        • I only want to comment here on one small part of what you said. At what point would a gamete donor/provider/vendor give the gamete up for adoption (or whatever proceeding you’d imagine?) I suppose it could be at the point of donation. But it’s hard for me to imagine a proceeding where someone adopted a bunch of gametes. And I don’t want to simply give the gametes the same legal status as a child. That has many implications that I’d need to think through. If it isn’t at the very beginning, then when is it? Any time after the gamete is used (perhaps with a gamete provided by one of the intended parents?) the ability of the donor/provider/vendor to change his/her mind and revoke consent is going to be a major problem. Very few people would use gametes that might bring with them an additional parent. I realize that this might be fine with some people, who would rather that gametes not be readily available as they are now. I just want to be clear that this is a consequence of the adoption suggestion.

          • I would think that a pre-conception legal parenting relinquishment process should happen at the time a person provides his or her gametes for the INTENTION to create children/people. I also think that the relinquishing pre-conception gamete providers should have a say as to how many children should be allowed to be conceived from their gametes (and be given the option to give input into what type of recipients they would feel comfortable donating to – especially if there is identity release when the offspring is 18)

          • Correction:
            I wrote –
            “especially if there is identity release when the offspring is 18”

            I meant to write –
            “especially if this is an OPEN pre-conception adoption arrangement (prior to age 18) OR if there is identity release when the offspring is 18”

  4. One question I would have is what exactly happens at that process. I’d guess (without knowing for sure) that people providing gametes sign various sorts of releases now. I assume this is not, from your point of view, enough.

    Would you envision the sort of proceeding that might accompany termination of parental rights? That’s a little odd because the gametes aren’t exactly children, but you could follow that. And related to that, would the person or people planning to use the gametes essentially have to adopt them, whatever that might mean? Here again, it’s a bit odd because (thinking here of men) a man does not donate a single sperm and generally speaking we all know that the vast majority of the sperm provided will perish. So in order to adopt the sperm, what would you have to demonstrate? Not that you’d provide them a good home, I take it.

    And that really takes me to the final question–if this is a court proceeding, what is it that the judge is instructed to do. In an adoption the judge’s role is fairly clear–examining whether the proposed adoption is beneficial for the child, or perhaps in some cases determining that the people giving up parental rights know what they are doing. What would be the inquiry at the relinquishment proceeding you envision?

    I don’t mean to say this cannot be done. I think it probably could. But there are a number of details you’d need to work out and depending on how you worked them out, you might effectively make donation impossible. (Which for some people might actually be the desired end.)

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