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.