Siblings and Spouses: Does It Matter If It Is Fact Or Fiction?

Karen Clark alerted me to this story this AM.   It’s the first letter to “Prudie.”   “Nasty Suprise” writes of learning that he and his beloved wife (with whom he has three children who are, I gather healthy) were also half-siblings as they were conceived with sperm from the same donor.   The question posed to Prudie is what to do–does he tell his wife/sister?   Does he try to forget it?   (Perhaps I should add here that he had already had a vasectomy so the prospects for further reproduction are non-existence.)

Where to begin?  I’ll start with the rest of the column, I think.   To her credit, Prudie suggests that it is better to be honest with the sister/wife than not.   But I’m going to take some of that credit right back because then she suggests there’s no point in being equally honest with the children.

While I might agree with that at whatever age the children presently are there is no need to discuss this with them it seems unwise to me to maintain it as a secret.   In general family secrets seem to me to have a certain kind of toxicity–they poison conversations that come anywhere near it.   And since both parents here are donor conceived–and presumably they will tell their children that as they are both children of lesbians so it’s fairly obvious–it seems to me there are topics that will come up  from time to time.   Obviously (or at least, it’s obvious to me) the parents get to pick the time and place where the children are told, but I think it’s far better to tell them at some point, just as it is better for the husband to tell the wife.

But this all just thinking about the response to the “what do I do?” question and clearly there is more to say here.   For one thing, this appears to be one of those accidental incest occurences that worry people who think about men who produced dozens or scores or even hundreds of offspring.

This concern comes up with some regularity here as well as in many other forums for discussion of ART and the use of third-party gametes.   Indeed, it came up in the UK House of Lords several years ago and was the subject of some discussion here at that time.

It turned out, however, that there is some doubt about whether the story told in the House of Lords and then retold throughout the world was actually true.   And this very concern is raised in the discussion following the Prudy Q and A that appeared today.   I’m a bit dismayed to note that Prudie’s answer to this concern was:

I rarely publish letters I think are likely fake, and I agree that this raises the skepticism alert. But the sperm bank industry has started trying to limit the times a donor can give just to avoid this kind of situation. Google Dr. Cecil Jacobson, the fertility doctor who may have fathered 75 children using his own sperm. At the time, the question was raised about what if some of his offspring met in high school or college and fell in love. So maybe this is that kind of case. It does present a vivid human dilemma. And I doubt there’s a political agenda to it.

[Emphasis mine.]

I do not take much comfort from the fact that she rarely publishes letters that she thinks are likely fake.   But I’m even more unhappy with what I think is an extremely naive conclusion–that “I doubt there’s a political agenda to it.”   There most certainly could be a political agenda, as I think the earlier story from the House of Lords demonstrates.   It was presented as part of the political opposition to pending legislation.   That is, to my mind, a political agenda.  And while I cannot say whether Nasty Surprise stems from the same impulse, I worry that the occasional appearance of stories like this is in part designed to provoke a broad and reflexive anti-ART response.   After all, Prudie does not exactly provide a nuanced discussion of the possible responses to the policy issues that are raised here.

I want to be clear here–it is hardly impossible that something like this could happen.   There are sperm-providers who have scores or even hundreds of off-spring.  Particularly if the off-spring are geographically concentrated, it’s possible that they could run across each other and it’s possible for people to fall in love and so on.  It’s just that I think the concerns raised ought to be raised and discussed in a thoughtful manner.

There are at least two things that have been discussed on the blog that are worth thinking about.   One is that the number of offspring per man could be more effectively monitored and limited.   There may be real practical reasons why this would be difficult, but certainly more serious efforts could be made.   A second is that more information could be made available to donor-conceived people so that they can know who they are genetically related to–forewarned is forearmed.

These won’t be perfect solutions, which is why there’s plenty to think about and talk about.  But then, we cannot live life without risk.   Siblings can unwittingly fall in love without any ART at all.  (See, e.g., Lone Star, which I concede is no more real than the other stories.)  I’m just afraid Prudie hasn’t set us up for a good discussion.  Of course, maybe the best thing to say in her defense is that she’s just trying to write an column.


17 responses to “Siblings and Spouses: Does It Matter If It Is Fact Or Fiction?

  1. Ick. This possibility is why I don’t like completely anonymous donors. I think everyone should be able to find out at 18 who the donor was.

  2. My parent's donor is my father

    There is quite a bit of writing out there about genetic sexual attraction in cases of adoption. I don’t know as many stories regarding “donor” conception but I have heard of these stories happening in private conversations over the past 12 years on various “donor” support groups. Why discount this as “political”? Why even bring that into the conversation? These are real concerns and they should be addressed through regulations and public awareness. Regulation won’t happen without politics – which comes first – real concerns or political agenda?

    • I did not mean to suggest that real concerns couldn’t drive a political agenda or that the fact that one has a political agenda implies there are no real concerns. I do think it is important to understand that there are political agendas of many varieties on all sides here, partly because for some people the ends (the agenda) justify the means.

      The House of Lords instance is an example of what worries me. Lord Alton was speaking in opposition to a bill facilitating the creation of single mother or lesbian couple families when he recited the story of the twins who unwittingly married. But it’s not at all clear that this story is true.
      (I had the wrong link in the original post but have since changed that, I think.) I’d actually feel differently if he had said “Here’s what might happen”–but he didn’t. He said “Here’s is a real thing that happened.” Perhaps the distinction is fine but this matters to me.

      I agree that a real discussion of regulation is needed and that public awareness should be raised. This is really about how one initiates and conducts the discussion, and it seems to me that this column doesn’t really get things off on a good footing.

  3. My parent's donor is my father

    And you could also argue that ppl who don’t want any regulation want to make the practice as unsafe as possible with huge consequences as a part of their “political agenda” to punish people for making this choice. Something to think about.

    • It’s likely true that there are any number of political agendas at work. Indeed, I think one might fairly say that I have a political agenda in that I would like to influence how these issues get resolved. The question is more about what one is willing to do in service of a political agenda. If I tell stories (also known in my field as hypotheticals) I try to make it clear that they are stories, usually made up to prove a point. I am troubled both that someone made up this story and that Prudie 1) doesn’t seem to care if it is true and 2) doesn’t see that the issues around use of third-party sperm are indeed political.

      All that said, I’m not sure I understand the agenda you are describing. Are you suggesting there might be people who are opposed to use of third-party sperm and who want to make in dangerous in order to punish people who use it? Not surprising, I suppose, that I think that’s a dreadful stance, but perhaps you are right. Maybe, coming from that framework, working to make it safer for all involved is seen as a bad thing.

  4. My parent's donor is my father

    Julie, I know of stories of “donor” siblings (and one story of a “donor offspring” and her “donor”) who experienced GSA and acted on it. They won’t EVER be shared publicly for obvious reasons. This story might very well be true. Regardless, these things do happen. So debatin whether or not it’s fabricated is a moot point. It happens. And will happen more and more as long as society condones anonymity, non-regulation and non-disclosure. Does “regulation” have a “political agenda”? I guess, yes it does but what agenda is it? Can any of this be “regulated”? I have no idea. I’d like to think so but I don’t have any faith in the law to act on it. (because of all the conflicting “political agendas” pushing back against it) I hope you can help.

  5. It isn’t a matter of “if” it happens, it’s a matter of “when” it happens or has already happened. The ART industry carries full responsiblity for it because “they” are the ones who dictated that they didn’t need to be concerned and require any type of protocals. Putting practices in place takes away some of the profit and I think that plays/played a role in the decision making.

    I do think GSA is real and could play a role in an attraction between siblings – whether both are DC or one is the donor’s raised child.

    Per the story (assuming it is true) the children are okay – hopefully the next generation will be as well. I would be highly interested in a DNA sequence and see how many of 2nd copy of the gene is silenced because they inherited the same copy number (alleles I think is the term?).

  6. My parent's donor is my father

    All of these stories below share the same premise – a result of secrecy and non-disclosure:

    “Sins of Our Mothers”

    “A Family Tale”

    “Ohio woman who unknowingly married her father”

    “Sonia: The Story of a ‘Father – Daughter’ Marriage”

    “I’ve Married My Sister”–having-second-baby-Siblings-defied-law-plan-start-new-life-abroad.html

  7. My husband once took my bike to prove to me that it could get stolen where I was locking it up. He does this kind of thing all the time to show me what could happen if I don’t stop whatever it is he does not think is a good idea. I got mad. “But it was not stolen you took it and made me late” and he’d go “But it could have happened” I’d go “But it didn’t”. So yes I think it matters if its true or not. The fact that they are out of college and have more than one child leads me to the conclusion they’d have to be in their 30’s and that is just too old to have the story play out the way its written. The lesbian thing clinches it for me.

    Being the voice of absolute balance as I always am, lets move on. The point is not that it could have happened. The point is that people in general deserve to know who they are in relationship to everyone else in the world in order to make their own decisions about what they want to do or not do. Preventing someone from knowing something about yourself is one thing, but preventing someone from knowing something about themselves is entirely another. The right to conceal information should not extend to information that involves other people.

    Like it or not this country expects people to take care of their own offspring or there would not be paternity suits and orders for support and visitation based on nothing more than dna evidence. If a person has offspring they should count on the fact that nobody but them is going to take responsibility for the dependent person they are putting on this earth unless they themselves make suitable arrangements for their care and then still that is thier responsibility and nobody else’s. When people don’t take care of their kids and conceal the existence of their children from their relatives, their relatives don’t have the information they need to decide for themselves whether they want to date an immediate relative. That choice has been made for them.

    If I am someone’s sister I want to know that. That’s my relationship to pursue or not pursue. My friendship to forge or not forge. My choice as to whether I’m going to date a sibling or have children with them. Nobody else should get to decide that for me but me. Nobody else gets special protection from the government so their relatives don’t contact them unless they have a restraining order out against them. I you don’t want to talk to your crazy aunt you tell her not to call you but you don’t expect to not even know she’s your Aunt or expect that she should not know who you are.

  8. My point is that these people should not have the right to conceal the fact that they have offspring. They should be accountable for them the same way that the rest of the population is accountable and that also means we need adjustments to adoption and laws that say if errors or fraud cause people to be named as parents of unrelated children those errors will be corrected on the record once they are discovered. Errors will not be allowed to stand uncorrected. Custody and parental authority might remain intact depending upon circumstances but the records from which rights to services and benefits flow as well as obligations must be corrected to protect the right to accurate information of each and every family member. Unobstructed access to accurate records from birth forward not controlled by the people with parental authority because they are the ones most apt to lie and prevent people from forming relationships with their estranged siblings in order to protect the nuclear family that they are trying to set up. But its really a bigger family and its time that people who mate with donors realize that. Their child is not an only child and the siblings in the house are not their only siblings and they have cousins and aunts and uncles grandparents outside the family that was crafted for them. Waiting 18 years to give them infomation prevents them from forming bonds in early childhood and that is not something that people should be doing to other people. You should not be able to buy the right to sequester a child from their own family.

    • Parents who are estranged from all or some of their families that don’t use donors or didn’t adopt can do that right now though. There’s no law requiring parents to tell their kids about their relatives and let them have a relationship. The limited visitation rights given to people who aren’t parents (like grandparents) require a prior relationship was already established. So there’s absolutely NOTHING right now requiring that parents allow their children to form bonds with other relatives in early childhood and those kids would also have to wait til 18. I know someone who has never allowed her mother to meet her child because she thinks her mother is insane and hasn’t spoken to her in years.

      • Parents who are estranged are the problem! Bingo. If they did their damn job nobody would have any unknown relatives. Your right that there is no law requiring parents to tell their kids about their relatives but if they take care of their kids they will necessarily be in one another’s lives even if they are only half siblings, they will know about one another at the very least and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent them from pursuing a relationship with one another sending one another xmas cards exchanging medical info not having sex together.

        • Sometimes people are estranged for good reasons. Some people are toxic and unable to have healthy relationships. Other times the relative just doesn’t care or want a relationship and it can’t be forced. I have no way of knowing if the grandmother I mentioned was truly insane and emotionally abusive since I never met her, but if she was, I believe the mother was absolutely right to not allow her to have a relationship with the child.

          • Rebecca of course the legal parents of a minor are in a position to call the shots about who the child does or does not see – and they should be. But unless they get a restraining order against that relative for having done something bad enough that a court would agree an order of protection is warranted, parents have no legal protection against being contacted by that relative or against that relative obtaining copies of their vital records or their children’s vital records. There is no special legal identity concealment thing that helps people hide from relatives they are not fond of. Its not against the law for them to call or send Christmas presents. Parents don’t have the ‘right’ to hide the existence of their child from the people the child is related to – they can walk into the vital statistics office and get a copy of their grandchild’s birth record if they feel like it. The parent does not ‘own’ their relationship to the child, it is what it is. The grandparent may not have a right to visitation with the child but they can certainly make themselves known to the child and at some point the kid would become aware of them and make up their own mind.

            All I’m saying is that its ultra control freak to try and pretend you don’t even have offspring so your relatives don’t even know that they are aunts or grandparents. Other people are related to that person. They should have to record the existence of their offspring because it impacts other people and their lives from the day the kid is born.

            • I am pretty sure you need at least some information to request records – you can’t just walk in to the office of vital statistics and ask them to check if anyone you are related to had kids. Also, the relatives who can request birth records are limited. In my state, you can only request the birth certificate of your child, your grandchild, your spouse, or a child you are the legal guardian of, also adult children can request their parents or grandparents birth certificate. Siblings, aunts, uncles, and other more distant relatives have no rights to request birth certificates.

  9. My parent's donor is my father

    “The lesbian thing clinches it for me.”

    The “lesbian thing” is irrelevant other than the ppl these days most likely to use assisted conception via so called “donors” are lesbians, gays and single by choice people. Could easily have been a case of heteros using this practice and creating this problem…

    No matter who uses it, it has problems. It is a problem.

    • the detective in me says the details don’t add up but the point is that nobody should be in that position ever whether it could happen or not, critical information is being withheld from some people when others have the luxury of having it. And its not like the information is impossible to get its there and being withheld to their detriment.

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