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.