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.