Can We Mandate Honesty?

A while back I wrote about one of the harms that is at least sometimes associated with the use of third-party gametes.  I called it the harm of concealment.   You can certainly go back and read the earlier post, but let me sum up what I meant.

Sometimes people who have used third-party gametes in creating their children conceal this fact from the children.   I’d venture to guess that this is most common with parents who are a heterosexual couple.   The couple may pretend to the child that the gametes used came from the man and the woman the child identifies as its parents.   (For same-sex couples and single parents, the absence of one of the gamete providers is obvious.)

I’m confident that concealment was more common twenty years ago than it is today, but there’s no reason to believe that it has ended.   There’s a recent article recounting a study of people using sperm  providers I’ve been meaning to discuss that has some interesting statistics.   I’ve not seen the study, but the article notes that “most” parents plan to disclose their use of donor sperm, but of course, that tells us that “some” and perhaps “many” do not plan to.

I’m going to start with the assumption that concealment of something like this is problematic.  It’s one thing for parents to tell their kids about the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.   I suppose there are kids who feel betrayed when they learn their parents deceived them, but I don’t think it does kids serious harm.   This is orders of magnitude different.

The question I’ve been thinking about though, is what to do about the concealment harm–how to address it.    I’ll start with two things I think would help by encouraging parents not to choose this course.   (I think it unlikely that these will satisfy the people most concerned about the harms from concealment, but I’ll start with them anyway.)  Both of these suggestions are aimed at changing how parents  evaluate the option of concealment.

First is education.  I think very few parents really want to inflict deep psychological harm on their children.   Certainly historically, parents were encouraged by the medical professionals involved in ART to choose the path of concealment.   As compliant patients, they followed the advice that was given.

Now I think it is widely understood that the advice was and is wrong, just as it was and is wrong with adopted kids.   But I suspect that many people using third-party gametes don’t get a lot of information about when/how/why to talk to their kids.   I think they should.   If they did, some who  might now choose concealment would change their plans and this would undoubtedly be a good thing.

Proposing better education is both concrete and manageable.   People are already engaged in a process where information is provided to them.  My second suggestion is trickier.

I don’t really think that education alone will solve the problem.   So apart from ignorance (which I’d address by education), why don’t people tell their kids they were concealed using third-party gametes?  I suspect it is shame.    I think this is the same force that motivated generations of adoptive parents to conceal the fact of adoption from their kids.

If that’s right then to discourage concealment you have to reduce shame.  You have to make being honest with your kids more positive option, just as education makes choosing concealment a more negative one.

Now the thing is, there’s no easy way to reduce shame–it’s not like providing educational materials.  Shame is generated by complicated cultural currents.   I do think we’ve made progress, though, and the more progress is made perhaps the easier it gets.  As more and more people freely identify as families with donor-conceived children, having a donor-conceived child seems more and more ordinary.   And here, perhaps, the prevelance of lesbian families and single mother families make a difference.   It’s pretty obvious to everyone that these are donor conceived families and they are out their living their lives.

But surely there is more to do to reduce the shame that those with donor-conceived children might experience.  And anything we can do to reduce that shame ought to encourage people not to conceal this important truth from their kids.

To be clear, I do not think that the two points discussed here are an adequate consideration of the matter–they are just a start.   So stay tuned…..



20 responses to “Can We Mandate Honesty?

  1. Please expound on ideas for reducing shame. The topic deserves more attention.

  2. Your confusing envy with shame. Your solution may still work though

    • Although I think there might be some connections between envy and shame I don’t think I’m confusing them.

      For starters, I might envy you because you have a lovely home theater set-up or whatever. But there’s no shame there. I might think you’re lucky to have what you have and I might feel a bit sorry for myself, but I don’t need to attach any blame or experience any stigma.

      I also might feel shame–stigma and self-blame–about something I did or did not do without any sense of envy at all. I might not even be thinking about other people, merely about my own short comings.

      That’s to say I think you can have either one and not the other. (Though you didn’t suggest they were they same thing, did you.)

      Anyway, I don’t think it is as simple as people wishing that they had genetically related children (which is what I take it you mean by envy) although they may indeed harbor that wish. Shame comes from feeling like you have something to hide–like it is your failing that you do not have biologically related children and that you or your child will experience negative social consequences if people know about that failing. This is, I think, connected to why it’s easier for lesbian couples and single women to be open about using third-party gametes–there’s no implicit failing, it’s just that there is no handy source of sperm. But when a heterosexual couple uses third-party sperm it is because there is something wrong with the man’s sperm, right? His failing–not a real man or whatever.

      Anyway, I don’t think I’m confusing them and there’s more to say here because you cannot solve the problem until you know what it is.

  3. Fair enough. I think the answer to your question “can we mandate honesty?”, is Yes and No.

    Yes we can and do mandate that people honest when providing information to State and Federal Agencies. The State and Federal Government does not consistently ask the right questions which leaves lots of wiggle room for people to fudge the truth.

    For instance the federal government says its maternity or paternity fraud to claim to be the parent of a child that is not your own genetic offspring; giving birth is not sufficient for a claim to motherhood and neither is being the spouse of a woman who gives birth, sufficient to claim fatherhood, but the only place in the US code that is that specific is sections on determining citizenship and immigration issues. Asking specific questions about blood relatedness there, does not ensure they always receive truthful answers, but its harder to hang a hat on a technicality when the questions are specific like that. Its not possible for the person making the claim they have their own definition of parenthood. Federal long form birth certificates ask questions that are not as specific about blood relatedness but still use terms like maternal and paternal and biological when asking questions about the parent’s backgrounds.. State requirements are the least specific and leave the most room for people to lie on a technicality because you can claim to be the mother just because you gave birth or claim to be the father just because you are married to the woman who gave birth and blood relatedness is never discussed. If the line of questioning was consistent and a specific as used for citizenship and immigration it would be more difficult to lie and there needs to be some ability for the State and Federal agencies to compel testing at least once they discover that information provided was false.

    No, we can’t and don’t mandate that people tell the truth in their private lives, which is why its critical to be more specific and accurate in data collecting and reporting and why it should never be withheld from genetic family members.

    People who are envious of biological parenthood have misplaced sense of importance on genetics. If they are going to extol the virtues on non-genetic parenthood then stay away from misrepresenting themselves as having a biological connection. No fair can’t have it both ways.

    information given to State or Federal agencies islest it be considered fraudulent misrepresentation.

    • I’m going to turn to this subject as a main post in a few moments–I didn’t really get to the question the title raised. I guess we can mandate it–as in we can say you have to do this. But as I’ll explain in the post, I don’t think that we can really make it happen unless the parents work to the same end.

  4. I think most male-female couples still don’t tell, and they find all sorts of reasons to justify that, often suggesting that’s in the children’s best interests, though the evidence to me clearly suggests the opposite.

    There have been suggestions of making secrecy difficult:

    The state of Victoria in Australia has allowed donors since 1992 I think to contact people conceived using their gametes, once they turn 18. That means that some donors have probably already done so, and there was a publicity campaign earlier this year to warn parents that this might be happening.

    In the UK, there was some discussion about three years ago of noting the fact that donor gametes were used on the birth certificate, and then allowing the person concerned to get a second birth certificate with the regular parents’ names on. I don’t think this proposal got far, but DC parents have to undergo counselling which I think involves telling them that secrecy is a bad thing.

    I’ve never been in the position of needing donor gametes, but I honestly think I’d prefer not to keep something like that secret and spend the rest of my life worrying about whether or not people were going to find out. A lot of donor-conceived people seem to figure it out whether anyone tells them or not anyway.

    • There’s interesting research from The Sperm Bank of California which developed the idea of open identity donors. These are donors who can be contacted by their offspring when the offspring turn 18. You can read some of the research here:

      I’ll come back to this again in another post soon.

      • I’m a fan of TSBC, but that research seems to be just of parents who chose an ID-release donor (what they call an “open-identity donor”) over twelve years ago, so at a time when this would have been very unusual. I don’t think they would be representative of DC parents in general.

        I don’t think there’s any way to get an accurate estimate of how many male-female DC parents are planning to keep the whole thing quiet, but the fertility boards suggest to me that in the USA at least, it’s probably still over half.

        In other news, “Sex Cells” arrived the other day, though I don’t know when I’m going to find time to read it…

        • I think your reservations about the research are quite appropriate. TSBC clients may not even be that representative to begin with. Ultimately there’s a lot we don’t know. Not only is there no really good way to get a handle on what male/female couples are planning, there’s no really good way to know if they actually do what they plan to do. About the only thing I feel confident saying is that there’s probably a trend towards less concealment–partly because those who have suffered the harm have spoken out and made more people aware of it, partly because openness about adoption has a spill-over effect, and probably for some other reasons as well. (Of course, now I’m wondering about what we know about adoption and concealment, but I bet there’s more research there.)

    • It looks like the New South Wales state government in Australia is currently considering whether donor details should be kept by the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages:

      At the other extreme of information on birth certificates, it’s apparently possible in France and some other countries for a child to be born without officially having any parents:

      • Yes, France actually allows a woman to give birth anonymously, which is something that isn’t permitted in most places. I don’t mean that you cannot hide the fact that you’ve given birth, of course, and this desire to hide leads to some very sad stories of young girls who do not seek medical care. That’s probably one of the arguments for why being able to give birth anonymously is a good idea–as with the Baby Moses laws that allow someone to abandon a newborn at specified safe locations.

        If you really want to take steps to ensure that the information about gamete providers is collected and maintained, you probably have to have some sort of registry like the one contemplated in NSW. But I think that even if you have that, you probably don’t have any ability to require that providers keep those records up-to-date. That said, in this modern world of information technology it’s easier to track someone down (and harder to disappear) than it once was.

  5. “Sometimes people who have used third-party gametes in creating their children conceal this fact from the children. ” “The couple may pretend to the child that the gametes used came from the man and the woman the child identifies as its parents.”

    Telling people the truth about their conceptions is just a spineless way of saying they are being told the truth about their parents when everyone else was told a lie; Telling people the truth lets them in on the secret being kept by the people raising them. Those people they love and depend upon.

  6. In my state (MD), people using “donated” eggs or sperm are required to meet with a social worker before receiving any treatment from an RE. The social worker my partner and I met with deals primarily with straight couples and she was at a loss for topics to discuss with us, because her usual script is focused on encouraging straight couples to tell their future children about their genetic history. I don’t know if this sort of counseling shapes the choices of straight couples, but many of them are having the conversation.

    • The sort of meeting you describe can be mandatory (unless people are going the DIY/Craig’s List route). And I have to believe that it is helpful–that it means that more people are open with their kids. It’s also something that you wouldn’t have seen twenty years ago, so it does make me believe that there is progress.

  7. I think two aspects are missing from the discussion about concealment. First, it is a fact that the majority of parents who conceal the truth from their child, don’t conceal it from a relative or close friend. If one these “third parties” disclose the truth to the child, it can have devastating consequences for the trust between child and parents. Secondly, we live in a world where divorce (at least in America) is starting to be more the rule than the exception. Many donor children are told the truth in connection with a family break-up or family row, which makes it even worse for them to cope with. If you blissfully think that biology doesn’t matter, then this is where to test your theory.

    • Good points to add and I wonder what we know about that. I bet typically there are people around the parents who do know the truth–after all these are people who have gone through infertility and that’s something people often do confide about with close friends.

      My guess would be that what happens with divorce is that one person uses the information against the other in a way that is virtually calculated to be horrible for the child–but this is just a guess.

      This seems to mean there is even more reason to be open and honest from the get-go. Secrets taken on terrible power.

      It seems to me that where one parent is biologically related to the child and the other is not there could well be issues that have to be worked out. Burying the matter would only pile on more stress, etc. I would guess that for many peple the presence/absence of a biological link isn’t meaningless, but it can be dealt with if people actually do deal with it. I can see how if it is left unmentioned it looms larger and larger–the unmentionable that you worry about it. I’m really speculating here, but it makes sense to me from my own experience.

      • “This seems to mean there is even more reason to be open and honest from the get-go. Secrets taken on terrible power.”

        Secrets do take on terrible power. Telling the child that they are not related to one or both of the people who have parental authority over them does not eliminate the fact that enormous secrets are being kept from the child. Their existence is mired in secrecy, they don’t know who their genetically related parents are and they don’t know the identity of half or all their blood relatives. That is a big fat secret and it must be terribly frustrating to know that people know the truth but just don’t feel like telling them the truth because they promised to keep a secret. Then there is the secret of their existence being kept from their relatives as well. There is no shortage of secrecy going on here and I am affraid telling the child they are not the offspring of who ever is raising them hardly begins to lift that veil of secrecy and lies.

        • Imagine I use an anonymous donor for gametes. If I do not know the identity of the donor than not passing the information along is not (to my mind) about keeping a secret. There could be a quite open conversation about the limits of my knowledge and even about the fact that the limit is to some degree self-imposed–that is, that I chose to use an unknown donor. I am not saying that all the issues go away if I am open about it–but this is exactly why I tried to break out the different harms in those earlier posts. The harm of concealment–which to my mind is a very serious one–is dealt with. There can be frank and open conversation. There isn’t any festering secret.

          And I must add that your language choices trouble me deeply. There’s an irony here. It’s the language you’re using (I mean where you talk about the hcild not being realted to the people who have parental authority) that makes people feel that their status is tenuous and so encourages them to conceal things. The people you mean are parents (in law and in society) and they are indeed related to the child even if they are not genetically related.

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