Would Identifying Sperm Donors Solve the Problem? Some Observations about Underlying Assumptions

There’s been much discussion here about an array of topics related to use of third-party sperm and whether children conceived with third-party sperm ought to have access to identifying information about the donor.    This sprang from a couple of comments on the case brought by Olivia Pratten in British Columbia.   (The judge took the case under advisement today.   I’ll try to keep watch for the decision, but there’s no definite date for that.)    In all the conversation here, I feel like a distinction that is important to me may have gotten lost, so at the risk of boring people, I’m going to repeat myself and expand a little.   

In the last post about the case, I observed that Olivia Pratten was raising a narrow claim.   (This is a point which I think Bill Cordray also made in his comments.)   The right she claims is that of the donor conceived to know the identity of the man who provided the sperm used to conceive them and perhaps the right to contact him.  As I understand it, she does not object to the use of donor sperm generally.  If all donors were open identity donors, if all records were retained, she would be satisfied.  

The thing is, some people who support Pratten’s position actually take a more extreme position.   They assert that the donor is “really” (I use the word with some trepidation) the father of any resulting child and that necessarily, the man who was married to her mother and who raised her is not really her father.   Put slightly differently, some people argue that genetics is the sole criteria for determination of parentage.   (As I already said, I do not understand this to be Pratten’s position.)  

I think there is an critical difference between saying that the sperm provider is a important/interesting person who the child should know about and have a chance to meet and saying that the sperm provider is necessarily the father of the child.    Many who take the latter position consider all use of third-party sperm problematic–because the whole point in using sperm that way is to have someone other than the man who provides the sperm raise the child.   Thus, they consider all single-mother families and lesbian families unhealthy, even if these families use donors who are or will be known to the children involved.   

I do not raise this distinction to debate the merits of each position just now.   (I think you can find places back in the blog where some of this discussion has occurred.)   I just want to stress that I think the distinction between the two views matters.  Adherents to both views may support Pratten’s claims, but they do so for different reasons.    Their vision of the solution to the problem Pratten articulates also varies.  

In general, I think it is most helpful if people are clear about what their underlying position is.   It’s much easier to have productive discussion if there’s clarity about what people’s underlying assumptions are. I try to be clear about what mine are.   This is a place where it might be useful for others to do the same.

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20 responses to “Would Identifying Sperm Donors Solve the Problem? Some Observations about Underlying Assumptions

  1. Ok Julie someone else can raise the child but the real problem is naming him as father because it might mislead the child into believing that its true in the technical sense – that they are the offspring of the man that they call father. Many people lie. As long as official documents call the husband of the woman that gives birth father without a paternnity test to prove it, there will be problems. It does not matter that the information may not be important to the child its the truth and it should be crystal clear. The sperm donor is the child’s father in the real real sense of the word, he just has no rights. Calling the other guy father might be fine as long as nobody believes he is the child’s only father. The truth needs to exist unaltered and unconcealed whether anyone cares about it or not is irrellevant.

    • I think the problem I have with what you say is that there is no “technical sense” of the word “father.” The word has a legal meaning. It’s also used generally. But people use it to mean different ways. Thus, I call the man who raises the child–puts in the time and effort and all that–the father. You don’t. You call the sperm provider the father. This isn’t a question of who is right or wrong. It’s about recognizing that the language is unsettled.

      I know we’ve gone round and round on this and I won’t belabor it again. But I think there is nothing at all dishonest at all about a man saying “I am your father, you were conceived with sperm from a donor.” Neither do I think that is incoherent. I think it is just fine. I think perhaps you do not?

      • A man saying “I’m your father you were conceived with the sperm of a donor” is at least taking a step toward explaining that he is not paternally related to the child he’s raising. I would hope he would explain that she is related to the donors family and that she has grandparents and possibly aunts uncles cousins and siblings who may live near by or far away and that she may or may not ever get to know who they are and what they look like. I would hope that he would explain when he/she’s old enough they need to think carefully about that when they start dating. I don’t have a problem with a man saying what you suggested because he is making an attempt to tell the truth.

      • with birth records there is an implication of paternity. You can’t get away from that, they don’t like to name a “father” without a level of confidence in the paternal relationship. My fear is that children grow up and rely on that confidence that the paternal relationship existed in order to be named “father” before the heavy lifting of fatherhood could be done to earn the title your way. My fears are justified by the incredible number of mothers that lied on certificates of people who I’ve helped its chronic from my perspective. Viral. they should be ashamed at misleading everyone the way they did.

      • To make my position clear, I make no stand for or against the use of donor insemination. The policies involved in DI are totally screwed up and must be changed. I do not call for the abolition of DI like some others only for the abolition of anonymity and the recognition of our identity rights. I have no interest in making my genetic father responsible for anything beyond the acknowledgemnt of my right to now him. All other concerns about inheritance and child-support, forced associations, are irrelevant to me.
        My view is that the anonymous man who contributed sperm for my conception is my father, genetically and genealogically. We share the properties of our genes and family histories and share a relationship that cannot be altered by The Law, which changes daily and is applied unevenly throughout the world. I also think of the man who married my mother and whom I loved for 37 years and (after he died) as my legal and social father, but more importantly as my Dad.

        I don’t know anyone among those who want to abolish DI who actually claims that their legal father is not their father or that genes are the only thing that matters in fatherhood. Among those who take this stance, the relationship with their social father shows a wide range of feeling from total closeness to actual abandonment.

        One irony of those social fathers who don’t disclose, out of fear that the child will reject them, is the eventual withdrawal into remoteness towards the child and often complete rejection. Those who are not afraid to disclose tend to be closer to their children but some of these do drift into remoteness as years go by. This is also the case for many of the DI mothers as well. They don’t universely cherish their child and accept those traits that seem froeign to the family.

        • Bill
          I’ve helped several families where the father had impregnated the mother anonymously as a contract employee of a fertility clinic. even when it was the father doing the looking, it turned out that the children had been told that they were not related to the man named as father on their birth certificate. I’m guessing here, I think the ones that know their fathers were anonymous are likely in the minority so releasing the donor identities won’t help them. They don’t know to ask. Has anyone talked about releasing the names of the children to the fathers? If nothing else siblings to siblings? Is there anyone going to follow up and tell people “hey you might not know but you were a DI baby”?
          It seems to me the first order of business is to ensure that records are no longer falsified to imply a paternal relationship with any other man than the anonymous donor. Even if a birth record said “not paternally related” next to the name of the man entered as father, the child would at some point grow up and see the certificate and know the truth. Mother’s could prevent the child from seeing their birth record until they reached adulthood (I think that’s terrible but they say its up to the parents) I just don’t think parental censorship should outlast childhood. If the paternal relationship is really so damned unimportant then it should not be a problem to clarify.

  2. “They assert that the donor is “really” (I use the word with some trepidation) the father of any resulting child and that necessarily, the man who was married to her mother and who raised her is not really her father. ”

    Julie by “father” do you mean legal father, or do you mean father in a broader sense?

    • I mean the more general sense, which is why I had some trepidation. Whether or not the donor is legally recognized as the father depends on local law and the answer varies. That said, there is an answer to the legal question (much of the time, anyway) and it isn’t subject to debate. Of course one can debate whether the law is right or wrong, but that takes you back to the general question. Long answer, but bottom line–the broader/general sense.

  3. In a legal sense it is true, there may be only one father.
    But if you are speaking in a general sense, a person can well have two fathers, who are fathers in a different way. The acknowledgement of one need not require the denial of the other.

    • I think we agree on this. In my view, a child could have more than one father, though we might disagree about who gets to be called that. (If it is in informal usage, I do realize no one enforces who is called what.) It’s also possible that if you have two fathers who are fathers for different reasons and also play very different roles in a child’s life, there might be some value (clarity) in referring to them in different ways. It’s also true that many people won’t agree with us on this.

  4. No, it would only make DI acceptable, it would give it a legal sheen, as if all the problems had been solved.

    We should entirely prohibit DI and shut down all the sperm banks immediately. We should ban IVF also, and surrogacy. Using any energy and money to create a person is unethical, as is creating a person from unmarried gametes. You know what the root of “gamete” is? Gamos, which means “marriage.”

    • Hey John – your a little up tight. I’m curious because your views are sometimes very logical and scientific (which is nice) and then other times completely not scientific (which is confusing). I read a comment of yours on another blog where you said nobody would want to know the truth that their mother’s husband was not their father because it would disrupt the perfectly happy family because the mother’s husband has functioned as a father….there you sound like Julie. He functioned as a father because the mother lied. Your kind of hung up on marriage John. I like it when you stick to science.

      • I think I might have been saying that people just aren’t inclined to verify with paternity testing that their father is their real father. I bet very few adult children have said at the dinner table, hey mom and dad, can I get DNA samples, I want to check that you’re actually my bio parents. And I bet very few have surreptitiously tested their parents either. Even if they might suspect they look different from their dad, people generally don’t want to find that out.
        The difference between me and Julie is she thinks its OK to go and make babies who will not be their parent’s children, and I think it should be illegal to intentionally do that. But we both agree that it happens, and that biology shouldn’t determine legal guardianship or who a person calls “Dad.”

        • fascinating split. I can’t say that I know anyone that has asked to test their parents because they don’t believe them. I do know plenty of people who were furious when they learned that the man that raised them was their step father and not really their father as their birth certificates stated. I don’t think they love their step-father’s any less after finding out the truth though they were angry about being tricked into thinking that they were related.

          • To my mind that is a pragmatic (as opposed to a principled) reason not to conceal/lie about the use of third-party sperm. It’s very likely that people will find out and no matter how defensible the reasons for concealment may seem, I would imagine the aftermath is often very bad. I favor disclosure for principled reasons as well, lest people draw the wrong inference.

          • Now you know someone who has at least considered testing their alleged father. Hello 🙂

        • I appreciate your statement of where we disagree and I think you’re right, although of course I wouldn’t use the precise language you use. I also think you are right in your suggestion that most people don’t seek to verify the marital presumption via DNA testing. And if you consider that many married heterosexual couples choose to use sperm from men who look like the husband there may be many children who have no reason to be suspicious.

          It’s interesting to me that you and I can disagree about the first question (is it okay to use third-party sperm) but agree about the second (what do you do when people do that).

        • Hi. I had every intention of surreptitiously testing my alleged father. I finally decided against that because it was unnecessary – I was told and remembered enough to be sure he wasn’t my biological father and a day spent looking at his and my family pictures really solidified this certainty in my mind.

          I was going to test him because he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is a pathological liar. He lies even if the truth doesn’t hurt him – and in this case it does. I’d tried to get him to tell me the truth first – asking in a roundabaout way about the circumstances of my conception (they were both almost 40 and had been trying for 12 years) and he gave me the weirdest fairy-tale story that ended with the two of them on an island in the middle of the Adriatic sea, where I was conceived amid much passion. I’m 30. I’m mentally sound. I really prefer the truth to weird fantasies. And, so, I’d considered taking a DNA sample, yes.

      • I think that in general honesty is the way to go. But circumstances vary and people and their reactions vary. I do not think that there is enough evidence to make an absolutely hard and fast rule, certainly not enough to justify government interference.

        • You don’t think there is enough evidence to make a hard and fast rule that its important to tell the truth and record facts accurately. If we can’t get what we want by telling the truth, then by all means tell a lie. Think of all the happy families that would be destroyed if their children ever knew the truth.

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