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.