Untangling Calls for An End To Anonymity

I’m returning here to a topic that’s been the subject of a lot of discussion here:  anonymous gamete providers.   I’m doing this because I’m working on a paper I’ll be giving in January and I’m finding my thoughts are rather in a tangle.   I’m hopeful that writing a bit will help me untangle them.  Then I can figure out how to put them back together in an intelligible fashion.   I hope it isn’t too repetitive–it’s a topic I find endlessly interesting.

So let’s start here:  Once upon a time, anonymity was generally accepted for men who provided sperm for us in assisted insemination.   There are several reasons for that—this was at a time when kids weren’t told they were adopted, either.  Shame and secrecy went hand in hand, I suppose.   Heterosexual couples were encouraged to think it would be best for all if they just let the kids think that the husband was genetically related to the child, too.

Now just as there was a movement of and for adopted kids who demanded to know more about their origins, there’s a movement of/for the donor-conceived with analogous demands.  (I should say that “donor conceived”  is not a term I made up and assigned–it’s what some people call themselves.  There’s a small inconsistency, because the same people rightly question the use of the word “donor”–after all, people are paid to provide gametes.   You’ll see that I try to avoid “donor” in favor of “provider” on this blog, though donor still appears in the tag cloud.)

The donor conceived (and those who support them) identify particular harms that are caused by concealed use of sperm from unidentifiable men.   I think it is important to try and lay them out separately because this is where the tangle begins.   First, there’s the concealment aspect–parents not telling their kids that they are donor conceived.   This harm is about dishonesty and secrets within the family.  Part of the problem is that this means that the kids often find out the circumstances of their conception at some terribly traumatic time–a hospitalization, say.

But not all parents who use third-party sperm withhold this information from  their kids.  Indeed, it seems fairly clear to me that just as the trend is now that kids are told that they are adopted, more kids are told that they are donor-conceived.   This means that the concealment harm I just identified won’t be an issue for those kids.

And this brings me to the second and third harm that the donor-conceived relate.    These two harms both arise from the fact that the provider of the gametes is unknown rather than from concealment.

One is lack of information important for health/medical reasons.   This is important to the extent knowing genetic origins allows one to understand health risks you face and also perhaps locate people who can assist with healthcare.  I’m going to call this the health harm.

The second is what I’ll call an identity harm.   This is the one I think may be the most difficult to establish as both the concealment harm and the health harm seem fairly straight-forward to me.   The idea is that people who do not know their progenitors–their genetic forebears–cannot develop a full sense of their own identities.   And this in turn seems to me to rest on the idea that your genetic lineage is part of what forms your identity.

When I say that this is the most difficult to establish I don’t mean to deny or diminish the experiences reported by the donor-conceived people who have written about this.   But the writings are necessarily anecdotal and it’s important to have a broader grasp of the harm we’re talking about if the next step it to figure out how to address the harm.   And I find myself uncertain about my grasp.   On the one hand, knowing that your heritage is that of a particular race might well be important to your identity–but we typically know that not from genetic analysis but rather from appearance.   (I don’t think I’ve said that very clearly, so I’ll need to return.)

Anyway, I will pause here with three harms asserted to arise from anonymous sperm providers, although the first (the concealment harm) isn’t necessarily a part of the use of unknown third-parties.





3 responses to “Untangling Calls for An End To Anonymity

  1. The 3rd harm (loss of identity) is one that I talked a lot about in the past and thankfully I learned from you that focusing on this harm rather than the other two you list is a good way to undermine the effort to end anonymity. I see now from talking to you that the inability to prove harm in a meaningful way results in an endless circular debate that results in maintaining rather than changing the status-quo.

    Focusing on the existential angst rather than the practical administrative inequities of anonymity has not resulted in any meaningful changes to the law anywhere as far as I can tell. Original birth certificates are still not available to adopted people and genetic accuracy is still not required in order for a person to be named as a parent on an original birth record

    • To be clear, I don’t mean to disregard or discount the identity harm. It is apparent that it is quite real for some people. At the same time, it isn’t something everyone experiences. (By contrast, everyone in the group is subject to the health harm even though it may only have drastic consquences for some people.)

      This matters to me not because I think we get to ignore it, but because later on down the road we need to figure out what to do about it–how to take it into account. For example, if there are other factors apart from use of third-party gametes that aggravate this problem then perhaps we could understand that and address those things. I’m just getting started and part of my beginning analysis is that this identity harm is the most controversial and elusive of the harms.

  2. I think that a focus on identity harm is helpful to an extent. It hasn’t helped end anonymity yet in the U.S. but the harm argument has led to the abolition of anonymity in third-party reproductions in 2 large provinces in Australia and nine additional countries. These abolitions happen to occur in the same countries and provinces that had previously established identity rights for adopted people. There are a few other countries where adoption identity rights are established where third-party reproduction is still anonymous. So there is a slow growing trend based on justifications stemming from that charter on the rights of children (I can’t remember the name). So John Stuart Mills’ Harm Principle has worked there.
    The harm principle focuses mainly physical and property harm. It basically says that legal and social coercion can only be rightfully exercised against the actions of any member or group in order to prevent harm to others. Psychological harm and offense, based solely on feelings, is more problematic to define but restrictions against it are often supported by the Courts. Restricting procreative liberty, according to the theory developed by Professor John Robertson, cannot be justified because it causes psychological harm to women, regardless of their marital status, because women have strong feelings on the personal value of becoming mothers. Their identity as fully functioning human beings depends on it. No physical or property harm is involved here, only the emotional harm to one’s identity. This is why doctors and clinics no longer restrict access to ART solely to married couples suffering from infertility since the idea of procreative liberty is now widely accepted. In fact, the women who are just using sperm donation are all fertile. If identity-harm claims are justifiable arguments that ended the former ART prohibitions on single women, then it follows that people conceived through ART could make an identity-harm claim against the obstacles that infertility professionals erect that prevent them from knowing who provided the gametes. We see this as part of our identity.
    Who should determine whether the restrictions cause harm or even what identity means? Robertson says that an ethic of personal autonomy should recognize the presumptive primacy of the person directly involved as best situated to determine the meaning of identity. For any power, be it legislative, an adoption agency, or an infertility professional, to impose their concept of identity on others is paternalistic and not warranted. It can’t be decreed by majority opinion, agency policy, or clinical rules that deny an individual’s autonomy.
    In the sense of John Locke, one has a property right in one’s self, one’s identity that cannot be violated. I think that making a property rights claim has more value than just focusing on harm.

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