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.
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.