The Arc of Anonymity

There’s a major story (front page, big picture) in the Seattle Times today about one woman’s search for her sperm donor.   Her name is Vicky Reilly and her search is particularly difficult, in large part because she is 68 and so the donation she is trying to track is from 1942 or 1943.

Reading her story  makes me think about how the practices around use of third-party gametes have changed.  I’m thinking here particularly about the use of unknown and unknowable sperm providers.

I’ve written a lot here about that topic and I suspect if you read through all the posts (something I have not done) you might find that my own views have evolved.  But recently I have also been increasingly interested in how the general public approach to the issue has evolved.  Understanding the past and the trajectory that brings us to where we are today might help us understand where we are going.   Further, I think there’s something to be learned from the history of adoption practices, as you can see from my last post.

With this in mind, consider Ms. Reilly’s story.   At the time she was conceived, sperm couldn’t be frozen and so it had to be taken from a man who was on hand.   Quite often, this would be the doctor involved in the procedure and indeed, that is Ms. Reilly’s suspicion of what happened in her case.   No records were kept.  No screening was done.   Secrecy was assumed and nearly absolute.  (You can note that sometimes a woman impregnated with third party sperm might not even be told.)

Now I don’t think anyone would defend this practice today and certainly I won’t.   While I know that the degree of change won’t satisfy everybody, I think most people ought to agree that things have changed since then and that for the most part the changes have improved the position of donor-conceived children.    (This is not the same thing as saying there are no issues remaining.)   Further, it seems clear that change is continuing, perhaps even at an accelerating pace.   (Consider, for example, the recent developments in Australia.)

If we are travelling in the direction of ending anonymity and secrecy (and I think we are) then the critical questions to face are really about what our destination will look like.    As I’ve tried to demonstrate in a couple of recent posts, it’s not enough to say that information will be available.  The question, particularly for children, is who will decide whether/when/how they will request the information.

Putting those issues to one side, there are a few other things that strike me about the story from the Seattle Times.   As the article notes, you didn’t talk about infertility back then.   It was a shameful condition, even if the cause was entirely innocuous.   And this being the case, it’s hardly surprising that you didn’t talk about treating infertility either.

Here’s a place where I think there are important parallels with adoption.  Adoption, too, was shrouded in shame and hence, something to be kept a secret.   Both adopted kids and donor conceived kids were often deceived about their origins.    I don’t think  that was because the parents in those families were looking to harm their children–quite the contrary, I think they were trying to protect them from the stigma they might experience if they were known to be adopted/donor conceived.

So I see progress today in the fact that adoption and ART are spoken of.   Surely far more kids know the true story of their origin, at least in its basic outlines.   And it seems to me that this shows that moving away from shame and stigma is a good thing.   As adoptive parents have come to feel more accepted and secure there is no need to protect their children from the truth of their origins.   In the same way, the acceptance of ART families makes it far easier for these families to offer their children information about their origins.

Finally, one last note.   Early on in the article, Reilly wonders about where she got her sense of humor.   I’ve found very little to suggest that sense of humor is a heritable characteristic.   (This isn’t the same as saying that it isn’t inborn.   Some things are inborn but not inherited.)   I do think sometimes we overestimate the importance of genetics.  In the same way, I don’t know that the fact that Reilly is politically liberal means her sperm donor would share that trait.   I’ve seen plenty of genetically related families where the generations have differing political views.


2 responses to “The Arc of Anonymity

  1. Julie,

    You would be incredibly surprised at what really is genetic. Colorado Univ has been doing a large project on heritibility although most is not accessible to the public. I can state what I inherited vs what mom and dad provided me and in reality it is about 50/50 but some things just are amazing.

    Change is good – I just wish the ART community had taken advantage of what the world of adoption had to offer.

    Both sectors have come along way but both should have done more thought before jumping the gun.

    FTW: I think she should ask the doctors son to do a dna test – until you ask the answer is no, so even if he says no, she hasn’t lost anything she already had.

    • Back to front–she probably ought to ask again–what can she lose. But of course, it is her life and her decision and not mine.

      I do think there are different problems in trying to cure the past and move forward in the future. You can change the rules about anonymity or adoption going forward (as they have in many places) and people can begin the process knowing what is asked of them, where they stand. We can debate what the rules should be, but once we settle on them, everyone knows what they are. When you change the rules, however, you are always left with people who relied on past rules. IF the new rules are different (and this is really for anything, not just situations like adoption or ART) then you have to figure out what you’ll do about people who did rely–will you change the rules on them? Will you let them continue under the old rules? Is there some middle ground. I tend to focus more here on the “what should the rules be” question, but both are important.

      I’m sure I would be amazed at what is heritable but there is also so much that is not heritable but still genetic. Is there anything specific to sense of humor? It’s an interesting one to me because like some other traits it seems it might be hard-wired (which to me suggests that it is genetic) but I really do not see it (and I mean this casually, in my own experience) as inherited. Lots of personality traits strike me this way, for what it is worth. (Not much–I am not speaking with any special knowledge.)

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