Is Assisted Reproduction Sex?

The last post I did was about a situation in the Netherlands where a father may serve as sperm donor for his son and his son’s wife.   (You  can read the earlier post for a link to the original story and the discussion so far.)  It’s interesting to me that the complexities of the situation (and I certainly acknowledge it is complex) strike people so differently.   I thought I’d take a moment to try to extract some of the larger themes or patterns that I see in the reactions.

On some level I think one important question is whether the proposed action is incest–or close enough to incest to make no difference.   I think everyone agrees that to the extent incest has something to do with genetics and inbreeding this isn’t that.   There’s no genetic issue here at all.  

It’s worth pausing here because concerns about incest (or possible incest and particularly possible unintentional incest) have surfaced here with some regularity.   This has come up in the past with regard to men who have hundreds of offspring.  The concern is that those offspring could meet and mate not knowing that they are genetic half-siblings.   For the moment, all I want to do here is observe that this set of incest concerns is completely different from the ones raised here.

If nothing else this makes clear that incest has two distinct dimensions.   One is genetic (the one described above and not present here) and the other is social/psychological.   To illustrate the social/psychological dimension, imagine sex between adoptive brother and sister–no genetic issues at all but still troubling to many.

I don’t see why we need to identify one or the other as the primary problem–it could well be that they are both problems.   It could also be that some people who only see one or the other of the circumstances as problems.   But it seems to me that here we are talking only about the social/psychological aspects of incest.

So how to think about the father-in-law who serves as sperm donor to the daughter-in-law?   I assume no one would think it problematic if the father-in-law instead provided blood.   Indeed, that sort of helpfulness would be laudable.   I assume the same sentiment would apply if the father-in-law donated a kidney.

After reading the comments on the last post it seems to me that part of the difference in reaction has to do with how you think about ART in general and assisted insemination (AI) in particular.   For me these are clinical procedures, devoid of passion and sensuality.  They are entirely unromantic.    The man and woman providing gametes need never see each other and need never be alone together.

Thus, to me ART and AI are nothing like sex (although they are a form of sexual (as opposed to asexual) reproduction.)   Thus, they are not (to me) remotely like the father-in-law having intercourse or even engaging in non-procreative sexual activities with the daughter-in-law.

I’m strongly inclined to agree that the father-in-law engaging in sexual conduct (procreative or not) with the daughter-in-law is problematic.   (I’m actually not sure I’d call in incest, but that’s a whole other question.)   Where I differ from some of the commenters is in drawing the equivalence between providing sperm for insemination and sex.  And I suppose that has to do with what I mean by “sex,” since I think we do agree about what providing sperm means.

I understand that words have many meanings in many contexts and surely “sex” (as in “engaging in sex”) is one of them.   But I’d guess even most people who are troubled by ART would not say that the sperm provider and the sperm recipient in AI engage in sex.   Indeed, one of the primary objections raised to ART is that it separates sex and reproduction.    (Birth control does much the same thing, of course, though it allows sex without reproduction while ART allows reproduction without sex.)

The complexity I see (and something I guess I will come back to another time, for this grows long) is that for many people the sperm donor has some claim to be the true father of the child and that will make for a pretty complicated social web here.




15 responses to “Is Assisted Reproduction Sex?

  1. part of the social problems of incest is its tangling and muddying of family relationships which is exactly what this does. But Julie you want to place the blame on the truth tellers, not the ones who did the initial muddying.

    • I’m not sure who you mean to refer to as truth-tellers or muddyers (if that is a word). I actuallying agree with you about the social problems of incest. I think where we part company is when we think about what it means that the grandfather will be directly biologically related to the child. To me this does not necessarily make him a father. (I think this point must be many places on the blog.) Thus, his biological relationship doesn’t necessarily lead to any particular family relationship. If that is so, then there isn’t any muddying. He’s a donor and a grandfather, not a donor and a father.

      To me the critical thing to know is probably what set of beliefs about the importance of genetic relationships this particular set of people hold. If they are thinking as I am, then they might well be able to pull this off. If they think as you do–that the genetic relationship will make the grandfather a father or even the real father–then I think they’d best stay away. Only this family–probably in conjunction with some pretty good counsellor(s) can figure out where they fall on the spectrum of beliefs and if they are all on the same page.

  2. people do not operate in a vaccuum apart from their culture julie. while they are entitled to have any wacky personal beliefs they choose, they can’t expect to impose them on their kid.

    • It’s quite true that people do not operate in a vaccuum apart from culture, but I’m not sure how that truth plays out here. This might be an area of culture where people really do have divided opinions. There are many people–I won’t say a majority–for whom the man who provides sperm may or may not be the father. Whether he is depends on social circumstances. (There are also many people who would disagree with this.) At the very least I wouldn’t call the idea that the donor may not be a father “wacky.” I know lots of people who know there donors and don’t think of them as fathers and that’s pretty much accepted in their social worlds.

      All of which is to say that while I agree with your broad point, I’m not sure it really has that much bearing in an area like this one where there isn’t a uniform cultural take on it.

  3. I see in my comments I was disturbed at the proposed violation of borders (which is after all what incest is) but I did not identify them at the time as incest.
    Possibly this is gender related, or because there was no man actually identified at the time.
    But I did find ithe idea that the kid might one day even want to reproduce her mother’s eggs as her own, as kind of repulsive and distorted thinking on part of the mother.

    • Right–and there wasn’t really much discussion of that post. I want to revisit some of the questions you raised there and here–and will do so after I run today’s errands and see about replacing the dishwasher that has decided it no longer wants to wash dishes.

  4. I had to think about this for several days. I don’t believe AR is wrong in this case, and nor do I really have an issue with the father-in-law donating his sperm – provided of course that it is open knowledge in the family and that there are ways to deal with discussions and/or concerns. I believe it has been done before and has been done often in the adoption world – people adjust to their reality as long as that reality has always been an open subject.

    Incest – intentional or not is wrong but I don’t think the above is incest – incest is sexual relations. Incest between adoptive siblings or adoptive parent/adoptive child is wrong but the blame to the adoptive parent is morally higher due to the temporal lobe maturity. Incest between siblings – full or half – adopted or biological or DC is wrong. Incest between any family member is wrong.

    I also vicerally oppose anonymous donation / closed anonymous adoption and one of the driving factors is due to the above. It really has nothing to do with whether or not only one person was conceived or a 100. At the end of the day the DC / Adopted individual LIVES with the fact that they may unknowingly have a relationship with a close relative. That pyschologically is harmful to the individual and can stunt or limit their ability to enter into a relationship – whether as a teen or adult. It was a major contributing factor in my deciding to marry someone from a different country rather than risk marrying my brother, cousin, uncle etc. Now of course not all will go to the extreme I did but the “do no harm” and “best interests of the child” should apply to the creation of children and anonymous fails in this most important issue. I am sure you will remember the twins in England who married each other…can you imagine the damage amd they cannot be the only ones this has happened to and despite even if they never knew – it still is wrong.

    • I think you are right that to the extent there are incest issues with anonymous gamete providers you see the same incest issues with closed adoption. You’d also see the same thing where women become pregnant via sex with an anonymous man, I suppose? One brave-new-worldish solution to this set of problems might be a little simple genetic testing. It seems an impractical solution to me right now but I do wonder whether we are approaching a time where will all be genetically sequenced far more routinely for lots of reasons. Then you could set up something like the program described here:

      I don’t really mean to be serious about that last point. The question, as I think you suggest, is one of tolerence for risk.

      But as you note, these issues aren’t present here (assuming there’s honesty within the family).

      Finally, I think that twins who married story from the UK turned out to be mythical, but if you’ve got any cite to it, I’d try again to run it down.

      • “One brave-new-worldish solution to this set of problems might be a little simple genetic testing.”

        Ah yes, and since that’s part of the brave-new-world plan anyway, then it’s not a problem if two half-siblings meet and fall in love, because they aren’t necessarily going to be allowed to have procreative sex anyhow. Marriage will be stripped of the right to conceive offspring together and equated to the rights of same-sex couples that must acquire children some other way, like using a donor or adopting. Only some couples will be approved to conceive offspring together, if they pass the screening. No more just letting married couples go and reproduce offspring just because they are married.

        I think we should assume that there won’t be enough resources or organization in the post-oil future for us to screen every couple before they go and have sex, or to contracept or sterilize every person, and we should just accept that there will be a brief period of time when there are lots of half-siblings getting married and having children together, due to us allowing unmarried AI to be practiced during this time. The best we can do is open all the sperm bank books up and correct everyone’s birth certificates and alert everyone about their true parentage. That would stop some couples from forming before they go and have children.

  5. Julie – first the twins from all accounts is true. CBS is just one of many reports.

    The genetic testing is impractical. I say that because people date and the incest can and would happen pre-marriage and is just as bad. No one (or very few) get married before they date. Many who date will have sex and even those who don’t will seldom if ever get to the altar before at least kissing or experiencing that thing called lust. I understand that it could be treated just like STD testing but I think that testing would come into play after you started dating etc where genetic testing would have to come into play before you even started dating.

    You are correct that those who do not know who their father is face the same issues and it is the same concern but lacks the AR or Adoption element.

    • I do agree that the genetic testing is impractical and unrealistic for many reasons at the moment. But you’ll notice that at least that one Orthodox community has figured out how to get the information into the courtship process and I have no idea what the future holds. I think about the increasingly extensive genetic testing many people do undergo and I think it likely it will only increase as it becomes more widely available and less expensive. If you knew because of family history that you carried a particular trait you migth actually screen possible mates for the trait. It’s not beyond what I can imagine, actually. Maybe it doesn’t mean you’d reject a person but maybe it means you’d use third-party gametes.

      All I mean to suggest is that it is hard to say what the future holds. I do not claim this is a desireable end or that it will likley come to pass. I still do think that transparency is probably the best way to deal with it and on that it is possible that you and I agree.

      About those twins–there are dozens of reports of that story indeed, all stemming from a single lawmaker’s comments during a parlimentary debate. Some have suggested he didn’t really have much of a basis for his assertion beyond opposing the legislation. It’s a compelling story that was offered for (and served) a specific political purpose. It just may or may not be true. I’m not saying it isn’t true and it certainly is possible, but I also wouldn’t take it as proven given the vagueness of the source. I have in the past spent some time trying to track the story to anything other than Lord Alton’s comment–which is clearly at best second-hand. I’ve been unable to. If you have any other source, I’d love to see it. Apart from anything else, though, it’s a fine example of how something an spread around the internet.

      • that orthodox community practices gender segregation and arranged marriages so people can plan out the genetic testing thing before ever even developing an attraction to the person. it wouldn’t work in other cultures.

        • You are quite right about the Orthodox communities but I wonder about other cultures. The age when it will be reasonalby common for each of us to have our own DNA sequenced may not be so far off. If you knew you had a gene that would predispose an offspring to something terrible, you might want to think twice before you reproduced. I’m not saying this means we’d all wear markers showing what genes we carry, but there are doubtless many creative ways to work with this knowledge. I am fairly sure I cannot imagine (and would not believe) some of them. (I think this is my next post theme.)

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