Secrecy, Privacy and Lying

An exchange in the comments of this recent post has had me thinking all day.    The exchange arose out of a suggestion by Marilyn Huff that the name of an egg provider ought to appear on the birth certificate.    Now, she and I have gone back and forth on the question birth certificates and honesty any number of times.   (Here, for instance).   But something about the language being used this time gave me a new take on it, one I find rather intriguing.   I’m going to have to back up a bit to try to get this right.

There’s been a lot of discussion here about the importance of honesty with kids, and in particular, honesty about the use of third-party gametes.   I think there was pretty broad agreement on this point when it has come up in the past.  

You can view this as pragmatic:  It’s reasonably likely kids will find out if their genetic code does not match their parents, and it’s clearly better for them to find out from their parents in a way that is sensitive to all of the issues raised.    Otherwise it seems to me quite possible that when a kid learns the truth they will feel they have been lied to and/or betrayed.   Alternatively, you can view this as principled:  Telling the truth is the right thing to do, even if you think you could keep the origins secret.    Either way, I think we start with some broad agreement that honesty is important. 

But for me there are also issues of privacy.   While I think you have an obligation to be honest with your kids, I’m not sure I see any need to be equally honest with your neighbors or your soccer coach or the rest of the world in general.   I don’t think the manner in which a child was conceived is any of their business.   And so I don’t feel any affirmative obligation to be honest with them.   It’s not that I think this means you have a right to lie to them.  Rather, I think you have a right to say nothing at all.  

In some situations the failure to disclose the information about having used third-party gametes may lead others to make false assumptions.  If a husband and wife used third-party sperm to conceive their children, and if they don’t tell their neighbors, the neighbors may well assume that the husband is genetically related to the children.   So be it.  

Consistent with my notions of privacy, I don’t think the husband and wife have any obligation to correct these mistaken assumptions.   Given that it may be quite predictable that people will reach the wrong conclusion, you might think this is the functional equivalent of lying.   After all, in the end the neighbors will (predictably) have a mistaken understanding of things.   It seems a bit like splitting hairs to insist that it is really just allowing a false assumption to go uncorrected.  

Now I generally hold myself to a fairly high standard when it comes to honesty.   I’ve been strongly influenced by Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.”  But truth and truthfulness are complicated things.  Perhaps a claim to personal privacy sometimes gives one the right to let untruth go uncorrected.   I think this is one of those situations.  

So now I see I do need to split that hair.   I distinguish this from outright lying.   I think affirmatively misrepresenting a fact (“I am genetically related to this child”) is not the same as allowing a mistaken impression to go uncorrected.  Perhaps, you abandon any claim of privacy when you make that (untrue) affirmative statement. I don’t see what gives you an an entitlement to lie.   What you have is an entitlement not to tell people, and drawing on that, you have no obligation to correct their (false) assumptions about that which they have no right to know in the first place.  

I’d offer the same analysis in questions about disclosing that a child is adopted.    I think parents ought to tell their children they are adopted.   I’d give parents a great deal of leeway to think about how and when, of course.  But I think honesty is surely best here.   But as with third-party gametes, I don’t see that the world in general has a right to know that your kids are adopted.  I’d offer the same arguments. 

It’s worth noting that for many families these issues won’t arise anyway,  because no one will assume that the child is genetically related to both parents.   (I’m thinking here of families who adopt outside their own racial groups, or two mother or two father families.)     This doesn’t mean these families have any less right to privacy.  It’s just not as likely to lead to wrong assumptions. 

Of course, for some people who use third-party gametes this issue will never arise.


15 responses to “Secrecy, Privacy and Lying

  1. To me this whole issue is a moot point, since I have no problem with lying to people about things that have nothing to do with them anyway– at least theoretically. ..I just don’t trust our own objectivity in determining whose business is what!

    • Deliberate misrepresentations of fact reported to the government can be seen as fraud. Not that it can’t be done, its just something to consider. If the fine for doing it is like$500 and the chances of being cought are 1 in 1 million, that misrepresentation of fact must be mighty difficult to resist.

    • I’m not sure you mean moot, but I think I understand what you mean. I do have problems with lying, though, which is why I’m left splitting hairs. The point you raise about objectivity is a good one and suggests some further complexity might be lurking out there.

  2. Rest easy! 10 years ago anyone could get a copy of anyone else’s “official” birth-certificate (which might be amended if the person was adopted but it would look no different than the certificate of someone who was not adopted). Concerns over identity theft in the wake of 911 and ID fraud in general have made it so no state will sell a person a copy of a birth certificate unless they are one of the people named on the certificate or unless they are the legal guardian/custodian/adoptive parent of someone named on the document.

    Some states like California and Texas sold their microfiche birth, marriage and death registry entries to companies like in the late 1990’s before they stopped allowing members of the general public to purchase copies of the official versions of other people’s records.

    So if a woman gave birth to a child that her husband conceived with an anonymous donor, she could be named as the mother just as her husband could be named as the father but there should be a big fat bold black checkbox that says NOT MATERNALLY RELATED DONOR ID AND PARENTAL RELEASE ON FILE blah blah blah.

    That is enough to begin trying to keep more accurate records without outright providing the name of the donor. At least the certificate would not imply (as they do now) that the burden of proof was met for a presumption by the state that the mother and father are the biological parents of the child named. Some small modifications like that would at least get the State going through the process of trying to make sure that women are voluntarily relinquishing their eggs and their parental rights. (same for spermers)

    The burden of proof to achieve a State’s presumption of genetic relatedness should be the same as the burden of proof used to refute it when there is a mistake of material fact. Federal guidelines for States on how to determine parentage where it is contested is DNA testing but the Feds at the same time warn states that ordering DNA testing when paternity is already established may expose a mistake of material fact that would leave the child financially by only 1 parent and subject to state financial assistance. That to me sounds like the truth may not be in the best interests of the State coffers rather than in the best interests of the child, Its beginning to appear to me that States are willing to allow inaccuracies to be recorded to protect the state from being burdened by children of men who cannot be identified. This is not an acceptable reason to deliberately misrepresent the existence of a presumption of biological relatedness when in fact proof is known to exist to the contrary.

    ART is so prevalent that the data collected at each live birth will have such a high probability of inaccuracy that it becomes worthless in controlling the spread of disease. The prevalence of a particular medical condition in a relatively small geographic region is cause for alarm but a genetic connection will never be detected, it could appear to be the result of environmental factors when in fact the medical condition is limited to the children and grandchildren of 1 very prolific sperm donor 30 years earlier.

    I’m trying to see if my logic hold’s up without evoking the “rights” of offspring, parents or intended parents. Hard but doable.

  3. Circling back around to the privacy issue – A birth record with genetically accurate familial title assignments will be just as difficult for the neighbors to obtain as the genetically inaccurate ones that are not available to them now.
    The identity of a child’s genetic parents, if recorded with a greater degree of accuracy, would be no more accessible to the neighbors of a family that created a child using donated eggs and sperm than it would be accessible to the neighbor of a family that created a child screwing in the backseat of a station wagon.
    Whatever gets recorded about a birth, be it lies or truth, will not be available to the general public.

    (I obtain records by stealth, back door arrangements and by memberships to web services that purchased microfiche before the more stringent laws came into effect. If the neighbors really wanted a copy of the record they could try and bribe someone at the recorders office but barring that – it would be a no go)

    • I don’t actually know what is and is not available to the public in terms of government certificates and wasn’t really meaning to reopen that. I was thinking more generally about the chats you have with neighbors over the back fence, etc.

      • Well generally I think that kind of uncorrected truth snowballs the kid might end up feeling like they have to maintain that uncorrected truth to protect the feelings of the unrelated parent. I was much more radical about all that before than I am now. I just want the official documents to be held to a higher standard of genetic accuracy. So that at least the kid knows he’s putting on a show with the neighbors so that at least the kid feels like he’s in on it with his family. Like they are on the same team
        It makes no difference to me if someone is or is not the child of the people raising them – unless of course they happened to be raising my kid they created with a stolen egg. Its not likely to happen, the process sounds downright unpleasant I’m much too squeamish

  4. I think it should be left up to the child whether genetics are a private family issue or not. The parents should objectively, and I mean OBJECTIVELY without placing the burden of their feelings on the child, outline possible ramifications of disclosure and then let it be up to the kid themself.

    • What confuses me Campbell is that everyone else in this country who has offspring has to put their own name down on that childs birth registration. There are definately public health reasons for collecting that info. Julie linked to a motherlode article with fantastic historical data that demonstrated that experiences in the womb impact people for the rest of their lives. The took groups of people that were gestating during major catastrophies and then demonstrated they did poorly in life.

      The researchers could not have concluded that the people did poorly due to their experience while in the womb unless they had ruled out genetic causes – which they were able to do because there would be a relatively high level of confidence that those women were giving birth to children that were at minimum related maternally to the woman that gave birth if not also paternally to the man identified as father.

      I do not think anyone has the natural born right to imply that a child is biologically related to them if that child is not their offspring and birth certificates to imply that the mother and father met the bare minimum criteria for the state to presume maternal and paternal relationships. If the people named as mother and father know that there is not a maternal or paternal relationship but they have squeaked under the radar by meeting the states bare minimum criteria to achieve the presumption of biological relatedness I would say that shows a certain level of deceptive and self serving shady-ness.

      • I’m not sure your assumption in the second paragraph is warranted. I think if a substantial number of children born in a particular time-frame have some signal characteristic then you can begin to theorize about causation. Especially if you find the characteristic across class line, across levels of maternal or pre-natal care, and so on, then I think you may not have to entirely rule out genetics to have something to say here.

        • Well I hope you would agree that the unique recipe that makes each person who they are physically and emotionally is a little bit hereditary, a little bit prenatal environment, and a whole lot of post birth environment. If the environment where the brain and body develops is poor development is likely to be poor even if there was no genetic predisposition to a particular physical or mental disability. But hereditary problems are often manifested despite excellent prenatal care and a loving nurturing post birth environment.

          • I will generally agree to the importance of each of the factors in the mix you describe. While I think we know a bit about which factors are most important for some things (say, genes and eye color?) I think there are many areas where we don’t really know how much to attribute to which factor.

            • I was thinking about weighter stuff like trying to figure out whether or not prevalence of female cancers in a particular group of women might be traced back to heredity vs lifestyle vs exposure to potentially dangerous toxins. And the trick to say determining that exposure to asbestos on the job caused a crew of people to get cancer when some of them smoked as well and when many have family histories etc. is having an accurate record of all the competing influences. But sure genes do determine eye color.

    • Generally I agree, as long as the child is old enough to manage this decisions. Realistically that won’t be for quite a few years. I wouldn’t expect a five year old or a ten-year old to really see what the choice was about. And I suppose once you’ve gone public, you’re pretty much done?

      Also in some instances it cannot be left up to the child. I’m thinking, for example, about a lesbian couple raising a child. It’s pretty obvious that the sperm didn’t come from either of the parents, so there’s not much chance of keeping it private.

  5. Julie kind of misquoted me in her first paragraph, but it did not bug me enough to mention it.The misquote specifically has been cited in another blog called Spin Doctor and they are all up in arms over it so I thought I’d go ahead and nip the error in the bud.
    The misquote in this post, (which refers to my comments made to Julies previous post) is:
    ” The exchange arose out of a suggestion by Marilyn Huff that the name of an egg provider ought to appear on the birth certificate.”

    I did not say the egg donor’s name should be on the child’s birth certificate; that would be illogical since egg providers are trying to be anonymous. I said the clinic name and donor number should be on the child’s certificate or alternately the name of the woman that gave birth, but there should be a check box that says indicates whether or not the parental relationships were confirmed by genetic testing and “if no” check box that says the Donor ID# and release forms are on file. I absolutely think that must appear on the document – and the document would only be available to the people whose names appear on it and anyone they need to show it to. My daughter is 6 and I have only had to show her birth certificate twice, once to get her SS card and once to enroll her in school. I never saw those people again. I think everyone can just relax about their privacy being invaded.
    I think its great that Health Statistics would start to be more accurate, I think its great that no child conceived this way would ever be mislead to believe that there was a genetic connection where there was not, I think its great that the child can decide not to make a big deal out of their conception or go ballistic, entirely up to them. The unrelated parent won’t need to worry about how or when to break it to the kid that they are not related. The child may never need a copy of their birth certificate, I did not need mine until I got married. If the child never got married, they may never know – or if they did see the certificate and it said “not genetically related donor id on file” the kid could have the discussion with their family if that alarmed them or not if it didn’t.
    I think anonymity is here to stay but there is an enormous danger to public health looming from growing hoards of inaccurate records about human reproduction. We also want to be sure that people are voluntarily relinquishing their rights to their offspring. I’m sure nobody would want to think they were raising a child that would be desperately wanted by its parent if they only knew their eggs or sperm had been misappropriated. Do women really know how many eggs are taken from their bodies when eggs are removed for their own personal use? What’s to stop them from saying they took 5 when they really took ten? If the 5 eggs are used to make children that other women give birth to, but the egg provider never signed the release like an egg donor would, shouldn’t she have the option of having 50% custody of her own flesh and blood? shouldn’t she have at least the option of allowing the woman that gave birth to adopt the child? I care about that stuff.

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