Adoption=Donor Conceived: What’s Wrong With The Equation?

I’m continuing along with a thread that begins with a case heading for trial in Canada.  (If you want to get up to speed, you can read the earlier posts here and here.)    

For the moment, I want to focus on one of the arguments asserted by Olivia Pratten, who is the plaintiff in the case.   As I understand it, she is arguing that since British Columbia’s adoption law allows an adopted child to gain access to the identity of her birth parents when she or he turns 19, principles of equal treatment require the same access be provided to children conceived using third-party gametes, or at least third-party sperm.   

Implicit in this argument is an assertion that (at least for the purposes of this case) donor conception and adoption are similar and therefore should be treated similarly.   This is worth thinking about.  

It seems to me that there are ways in which donor conception and adoption are similar and there are also ways in which they are entirely dissimilar.    This makes me very wary of broadly equating the two.  Instead, I think we ought to think carefully about the similarities and the differences and which ones are important for what kinds of decisions. 

For example, I think we all agree that the people who give a child up for adoption are themselves  parents of the child.   It is broadly understood that they are giving up constitutionally protected parental rights and obligations.   And of course, adoption doesn’t occur until there is a child.   While arrangements for adoption can be put in place before the birth of a child, the adoption cannot be completed before the child is born.   Indeed, generally the parent or parents of the child have at least a brief period of time after the child is born to reconsider the agreement to adopt.  

So is providing sperm like giving a child up for adoption?   I know that some people say that providing sperm ought to be treated like adoption and that’s exactly what worries me about the sweeping analogy.   It seems to me there are obvious differences that warrant different treatment:   There is no child so it’s a bit difficult for me to say that there are parental rights anywhere in the picture.   There may not be anyone in particular waiting to step in an assume parental rights.   And further, as I’ve said fairly frequently here, I don’t see that simply providing genetic material ought to give you parental rights.   The man gives up (or sells) his sperm, nothing more.     

Now there are other perspectives from which you can see similarities between adoption and use of third-party gametes and these are more important for Pratten’s claim.   The adopted child is not being raised by people genetically related to her/him.  At the same time, the people who are genetically related are not legal parents and may not be known to the adopted child.   You can say similar things about a child who is conceived via donor gametes.  (It’s a bit trickier, because she/he is often genetically related to at least one person raising her/him.) 

I’m not at all sure that the overall experience of being raised as an adopted child has much in common with the overall experience of being raised as a child conceived via third-party gametes.  I’m sure it’s been studied and I bet there’s a lot to say about it.    I think it is probably safe to say that there are ways in which it is similar and ways in which it is not and that individual experiences can vary greatly.    

My point here isn’t to either accept or reject the adoption/donor-conceived analogy in general.  I think it is useful to think about both the similarities and the differences between the two.   Some aspects of similarity may warrant similar treatment in some regards.   But all of this requires care and thought and not sweeping generalizations. 

To be clear, I do not have any reason to think that Olivia Pratten is offering sweeping generalizations.   I’m concerned, though, that others will take the argument that she offers and over-generalize it.   The real danger is extending the analogy without thinking carefully about how far it holds true.


15 responses to “Adoption=Donor Conceived: What’s Wrong With The Equation?

  1. Julie your reasoning seems a bit circular to me; you are basically saying that donor conceived and adoptees are different because the law defines them differently. At least that’s how I understand it. Because one relinquished hypothetical rights before he became a legal parent, and one afterward?

    (Of course this distinction is not based on any differnece whatsoever from the child’s experience, only on the adult’s)

    To me the reasoning that the donor conceived is not like an adoptee because they are being raised by one genetic seems more solid. I don’t think children have the right to sue their mothers to learn their fathers identity, only the state. Maybe I’m wrong.

  2. I don’t mean it to be circular. It seems to me that, putting aside law for a moment) there is some real difference between a woman who is pregnant and then gives birth and then gives the child up and a man who produces a sperm sample. In the first instance, there is a real and specific child and the woman has some actual relationship with it. (I’m sticking with the mother here to make this point.) The sperm may be used to create any number of children, but none of them are real at the moment he hands over the sample. Similarly, assuming he doesn’t know the people using the sample he will never have any relationship with a child or children who result from that sample. And even if he did, he gives up his rights before he forms any relationship.

    As I say, I think the question of whether these differences should have legal significant is a separate one and can be answered in different ways.

    I will try to say more, and to be more clear, later.

  3. Exactly- he gave it up before there was anything to give up, which means his action is strictly hypothetical, and should therefore be inconsequential.
    Which it would be except for the legal double standard specifically created for the situation.

  4. But if he has no rights to his own offspring why does he sign away his rights to any children born from using his sperm? And does’nt the absense of that waiver help protect someone who did not intend to loose their rights in the event their genetic material or embryo ends up being born to someone without their authorization? If not that then what? The timing of when a man participates in an act that can render a woman pregnant can’t possibly make a difference can it? So he gets help putting his sperm in her to get her pregnant he’s still doing something he knows might get her pregnant. While I’m at it Julie, why do they call men donors when they don’t intend to give up their rights but intend to inseminate their wives? Why would a woman putting her fertilized eggs in her wife/girlfriend’s body be a donor and not a mom with a gestational carrier. You know that case here in SF with the lawyer…what crazy law makes her a donor?

    • If we has no rights then he doesn’t have to sign anything away. But I suppose if someone wasn’t totally sure, to be on the safe side you’d have him sign away whatever rights he might have. (This is commonly done in lots of situations–it’s a bit like a belt and suspenders, I suppose.) I think men who provide sperm to sperm banks generally do so with an understanding that they will not have anything to do with it after that–they won’t have any say over who it goes to, for example.

      Much of what you raise goes back to which things matter and why, some of which we’ve been chatting about for lo these many months. All I really wanted to say here was that there are at least some objective differences between a woman who has given birth to a child giving that child up for adoption and a man providing sperm to a sperm bank. This suggests t0 me that one cannot simply say they are the same thing. You really have to look carefully.

  5. Stranger-conception (i.e. what you call “donor-conception”) is like adoption in some ways, but it is not the same as adoption.

    Stranger-conception has all the bad aspects of adoption and none of the good aspects.

    • It seems we agree that the two things are like in some ways and not alike in others. Beyond that, I think we disagree, though I don’t know what things count for you as good aspects or bad aspects.

  6. From the child’s point of view (both adopted and donor conceived), they are disconnected from their genetic, ancestral and medical backgrounds/histories. The all have a biological parent(s) that they can not know or know about. They all have many genetic relatives, i.e. grandparents and (half) brothers and sisters, that they can not know.

    Our research of 759 donor offspring (about 50% were from outside the DSR) has showed that more than 77% of donor conceived people recommend that parents use a willing-to-be known donor. 83% wished to be in contact with their donors. 90% wish to connect with half siblings.

    For decades now, the child’s point of view and actual life experience hasn’t ever been considered. Talking about these issues in theory is one thing, but actually taking into account how these decisions have affected the lives of the children needs to be first and foremost. We will be presenting these findings (along with research on 164 sperm donors) at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine’s annual meeting next week.

    Also- we will be presenting a talk at the American Adoption Congress in April that will look at the parallels between adoption and assisted reproduction.

    • Your first paragraph highlights what is at least a potential similarity. (I only say “potential” because some adoptive children and some donor concieved children do know their genetic forebears. The loss of information is not a necessary part of either process although it may be a common one.) It’s also frequently (but not always) true that in both cases a child is being raised by a legal parent or parents who are not genetically related to the child.

      That said, I think it is a mistake to assert that this similarity leads to fundamental sameness without also considering the differences. It’s also important to consider what will follow from whatever observation of sameness/difference a person might make.

  7. Its probably different from the point of view of the people dropping their genes off at the clinic – easier that is. The end result is the same. Maternal relatedness seems to matter more to the people I’ve met that were missing both maternal and paternal lines. From my experience though once a person has one side (maternal or paternal) they want the other as well. That is of course if they are inclined to look (I said that for you Julie).

    So maybe children of anonymous men who conceived them in absentia are similarly situated to children of men who conceived the old fashioned way that are absent because their mother’s prefer it that way. That is the closer analogy.

  8. I need to add that I help lots of people find their fathers and lots of fathers find their children. And when I say father I mean co-creator in the scientific parent-child way. Including men who conceived their children anonymously through clincs and then later were jared to their senses realizing “Oh my God where are my children? Who has them? What have I done?” Including “dead beat” Dad’s who never paid a dime of child support and were high for 30 years of their children’s lives. They are doing a fine fine job making up for lost time.
    That is the mushy stuff I should not talk about anymore right? I’m going to start a blog where the families I reunited can write this stuff down themselves because I don’t do it for a business, and I lack street cred when I say this stuff.

  9. This is very interesting to me b/c you are obviously trying to think clearly but your thinking is entirely about the parents experience while the BC law is about the child’s rights.

    If you think of adoption vs. donor conception only from the point of view of the parents, then of course they have little in common. You’ve pointed out the differences admirably.

    But if you think of the donor conception from the point of view of the child, they are similar in a very key area — some part of your genetic parentage is a mystery and you’re not allowed to know about it.

    Most donor conceived people (that I’ve talked to, anyway) immediately see the connection with adoption. Indeed, the BC adoption law is about the rights of the child, not about the parents. So, in suing to have DC treated the same way, Olivia Pratten is seeking to be treated like an adopted child because she is similarly situation in terms of the things that matter to an adopted child. None of that has anything to do with how the child got here.

    Why would you think that since the process for the parents is different that it would make a difference to the child?

    Does the adopted (at birth) child remember her biological parents? Was she privy to their deliberations? Was she part of the decision? No child can control the circumstances of her/his conception or birth or early environment. All children are similarly situated in the sense that you do not choose the families into which you are born.

    Most children are raised (more or less) within their biological families or at least know who their biological parents are. There are exceptions to this general rule — adoption is the oldest exception and the one about which we have the most data. And the data on adoption tell us that most adoptees want the right to know who their biological families are, even if they never exercise that right. Adoptees won that right in BC.

    Donor-conceived people are *exactly* like adopted people in this particular area, which is why there is a case and why it is going to trial.

    What is confusing or unclear here?

    It’s kind of like saying that domestic violence is not assault because the two people are married. Yes, the context of the assault may be different, but in the end, one person has a black eye and we have laws about that.

    The context of adoption and DC are different, but in the end, the child lacks access to basic biological and medical information. The BC adoption law corrects for this and thus is obviously relevant to DC people.

    • I think it is fair to fault an overly strong focus on the adult view (see the most recent main post). At the same time, even viewed from the child’s persective, there is both sameness and difference. (I reject entirely your analogy to DV, by the way.) All of this is tricky because the needs and views of any individual doubtless change over time, and of course experience varies.

      All of that said I think as far as the medical information claim goes, it is fair to say that adopted and donor conceived children have similar needs. Thus, they can make similar arguments for similar treatment. But often the assertions that advocates fro the donor conceived reach beyond the medical information point and make much broader analogies between use of donor gametes and adoption. (If you read through the comments you’ll see a variety of perspectives represented.)

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