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…..