A New Form Of Extended Family?

I know I’ve been a very bad blog host, and I hope you all understand why–see the last post if you must.  It’s just a busy time.  But since it makes me fret when I don’t post I thought I’d put something quick up this evening before the second-to-last leg of the family event marathon.  (This is son-to-college.  Next (and last) is daughter-starts-high-school.)

Anyway, this story caught my eye today.   Liam James Burke was born sometime earlier this year.  An ordinary baby save for one thing:   He was born after an embryo created 19 years ago was transferred to Kelly Burke’s uterus.   That’s a remarkably long time for a frozen embryo to be preserved and then successfully transferred.   Then again, perhaps we don’t really know how long they might remain viable.

The embryos had originally been created for an Oregon couple.   That couple used IVF and ended up with twins plus four extra embryos.  The embryos were frozen.

At some point the Oregon couple decided to donate them to someone.   (I imagine this must have been somewhat recently.   If they had decided to donate them in the 90s, say, surely they would have done so then.)

Now when the Oregon couple decided to let someone else use the embryos it was not the same as allowing a child to be adopted.  Despite the fact that some people talk about “embryo adoption” there isn’t anywhere in the country where it really is an adoption.   Embryos, after all, are not (legally speaking) children.   No court officiates and very little law regulates the transaction.

This means that the Oregon couple was, to some extent, free to handle the matter as they chose.  There could be as much or as little process as they wanted and they could make the decision themselves or turn it over to a doctor or the clinic where the embryos were stored.

A number of people wanted those embryos and presented themselves as potential recipients.  It sounds like the Oregon couple took charge of the decisions making.   The article notes there was “a rigorous process” involving lots of personal questions.    I’m not sure what that means, but it’s interesting to think about.  What, after all, would you ask?   Does it make sense that anyone with frozen embryos can use whatever process they like to decide who gets to use them?

Anyway, they chose Kelly Burke who has now given birth to Liam James.  Now, remember–the Oregon couple have their own 18 year-old-twins, created from the same batch of embryos.   These twins are full genetic siblings to the newborn child.   (Some might even want to argue that they are something more than that as they were conceived at the same time.

In keeping with the modern trend in adoption, Liam will know his older siblings as well as the Oregon couple.  Everyone has agreed to keep in touch–to handle it as though it were an open adoption, had it been an adoption.

This leads me to wonder about what they will call each other.  The sibling part is actually fairly easy.  But what is the relationship between the parents of the twins and the new child?  Or the mother of the new child?   Do we need to terms to encompass these connections?  Do we need new extended family terms to identify the relationships here?  (I don’t think I’d call the Oregon couple “birth parents”–which is the language of adoption.)

There’s one other twist here.   All the embryos were created for this couple using eggs from a third-party egg provider.  Thus (assuming for the moment the Oregon couple is a male/female couple), the legal mother of the twins (the woman in the Oregon couple) isn’t genetically related to either Liam or the twins.     There’s yet another woman out there somewhere who claims that connection–someone who now has three genetic children.

Brave new world, anyone?



13 responses to “A New Form Of Extended Family?

  1. “Does it makes sense that anyone with frozen embryos can use whatever process they like…?”

    The above instance makes as much sense as people with possession of sperm being able to decide how to distribute it to various uteri however they like. I certainly don’t think it makes sense for a 85 year old man to father a child, either by natural or artificial means. But I would not support state criminalization of that reproductive act.

    How ought the distribution of embryos be controlled by the state? Should all frozen embryos go into frozen “foster care”? If the state makes decisions regarding the distribution of embryos, this suggests that the state has “custody” of embryos.

    And if the state has ownership of all frozen embryos, that suggests the state has decision making control over the reproduction of future citizens.

    Conception, implantation and gestation are not the proper concern of the state. The exception would be medical practices regulated for health reasons. Other then medical health and safety, I believe state interference into the realm of reproductive choice is a violation of constitutional rights in the first trimester.

    Should the state criminalize the production of embryonic life if not gestated within a certain time period in a particular uterus? Should it be illegal for the owners of particular embryos to defrost the embryos? Can the state mandate that a particular woman has a legal obligation to gestate the embryos?

    Once we go down this path, where does it end? Can the state tell a couple how many children they may bear and how they must space their children for health reasons? Will the state mandate no more then four years between siblings so the sibling may grow up with each other? These are reproductive choices, and not the concern of the state.

    It’s a different story once a child comes into existence. The state may criminalize murder and neglect of children. The state may correctly take custody of and care for abandoned children. The state may regulate the adoption of abandoned and relinquished children. But 3 and 5 day old embryos are not children; in fact, many will never be children, even if implanted into a uterus under ideal conditions.

    • “? Can the state tell a couple how many children they may bear and how they must space their children for health reasons? ”

      No, marriages have a right to have sex and procreate for as long as the marriage lasts, with whatever spacing they want, at any age they are.

    • “Should all frozen embryos go into frozen “foster care”?”
      No, they should just be poured out into the grass outside the clinic. They are not living ensouled people until they have a heartbeat.

      “Conception, implantation and gestation are not the proper concern of the state. The exception would be medical practices regulated for health reasons. Other then medical health and safety, I believe state interference into the realm of reproductive choice is a violation of constitutional rights in the first trimester.”

      The state is obligated to protect future people from unethical conceptions, such as through rape, incest, adultery, and fornication. And I think reckless endangerment and assault of fetuses should be crimes, but that should be only for extreme cases, not stuff like drinking wine or smoking.

  2. Gosh I’ve tried to post three times and my computer keeps crashing. I agree with Tess 100%.

    • yeah me too. i hate this practice and i the kid will likely grow up confused. but i don’t see any point at which the government can step in.

      • If we don’t want to make homologous IVF illegal (or if we consider it a right of marriage), we can and should certainly make heterologous IVF illegal, along with all intentional unmarried conception by any method, and we should make freezing embryos illegal, and we should make implanting frozen embryos illegal. This won’t be difficult to prohibit, it’d be easy to shut down sperm banks and stop craigslist sales.

        • Well you could make it a requirement that anyone whose gametes are harvested by medical professionals had to sign a consent form that required them to be both physically and financially responsible for their offspring born which would preclude any cryopreservation to ensure that the donating party was alive hopefully to take care of their offspring but if not at least alive at conception therefore qualifying their offspring for their death benefits. Freezing gametes and embryos creates a situation where the parents might be dead upon the conception or birth of their offspring which prevents them from acting in a parental capacity and therefore is contrary to policy which holds people personally accountable for their own actions. Cryopreservation puts other people in control of your gametes and can prevent you from being in control of your own reproductive freedom

          • I suppose, but wouldn’t they be physically and financially responsible without signing that consent form? Or do you mean signing the form would just be a way of telling them that they are going to be responsible, as a way of dissuading them? But some people won’t mind being responsible, that’s what they want. But that’s not an acceptable way to have children, parents should have to be committed and in love with each other.

            • The law should be concerned that they are obligated to their offspring. Nothing more.

              If people had the right to married parents, divorce would be against the law.

              • Right, and death would be illegal too. But people do have a right to be conceived by married parents, which is why fornication and adultery are against the law (or should be where they aren’t). Again though, we don’t need to punish or police out of wedlock sex or conception, as there are better ways of dealing with the consequences of that. But we should shut down sperm banks and internet sales and put people in jail who attempt it or facilitate it.

                • Illogical – people cannot have a right that pre-exists their birth. What are their rights once born? Forget wishing that non-existent people had rights. That is all theoretical and won’t advance anyone’s cause. What do people have a right to once they are born? They have a very real relationship with each parent who caused their existence and as such it is more than reasonable that society hold them responsible for their own offspring’s care and then their offspring has the legal right to rely on them physically and financially because it is their fault they are alive and in need of care. Their parents don’t need to be married in order for their child to exist and require care.
                  Sure people have a right to have married parents or unmarried parents as the case may be, whatever their parents marital status, the kid has a right to be taken care of by them – not merely by people who may have influenced or paid them to create them for sale.

                  John if we actually got to the point where sperm banks existed but only for people willing to accept full responsibility as parents for their offspring in concert with whomever they happened to create their offspring with it would mean they were no longer prevented from exercising their rights to legal kinship in their own families. It would not give them married parents but plenty of people reproduce without being married and their children need to be treated equally with children of married parents. So even if I agreed that children deserve married parents, there can be no enforceable legal right to it where you can enforce the right to physical care and support.

  3. So I think now as I always do that we don’t need new terminology to describe people’s relationships to one another because there is a rich and accurate tapestry of language from which to draw upon when describing people who all have the same parents. We call them brothers and sisters or siblings. Even when they only have one parent in common we call them brothers and sisters or siblings because they are related to each other because they both have the same parents or parents, it is really simple and it does not change in the slightest if they are raised by other people. They are still siblings they are just not raised together. Being siblings has nothing to do with being raised together, being siblings is just a fact of kinship that we have no say so in depending how many other offspring our parents have.

    You can call the woman raising this new baby whatever you want; she is not technically their mother and her relatives are not related to the child she delivered in the medically relevant way that defines our relationship to other individuals and keeps us from inbreeding like Appalachian hillbillies. She gave birth, good for her she influenced the expression of the person’s genes so much that not a trace of her is evident in the physical make up of the person so she can spend the next 30 years looking for the specific genes that she switched on or off in the kid she’s not going to find anything to write home about and neither is the wife of their father. She also gave birth and raised them but amazingly none of that seems to change the fact that when these kids were born only two people wound up with offspring and it was not the women with the stretch marks and swollen ankles.

    In fairness to the individuals who are raised by someone other than the parents who reproduced to create them, something must be done to record them as the children of the people who reproduced in order for their vital records to be of any medical value to themselves and their family members. In fact their family members are not even able to access their vital records when the names of their parents are incorrectly recorded and similarly they cannot access the records of their relatives or their parents. It creates a black hole where family members are unable to get the information they need to make informed decisions if they so choose. Not only that but naming the wrong people as their parents then creates the misleading illusion that people are related to people they are not related to and are not related to people they are related to so in fact two families wind up with access to medically worthless vital records and so does the CDC. Who benefits from all this fraudulent misrepresentation? We need to record gamete donors as parents for public health reasons because that is the system everyone else uses. Why should gamete donors have some special ability to break the rules and not be recorded as parents of their own offspring when everyone else has no freaking choice in the mater? Why do we need to record the identity of the people raising the children as being the parents on the original birth records when nobody else is suppose to do it that way or we would not bother with adoption? If accurately recording people as having or not having offspring is unimportant then we should just stop issuing birth certificates that name people as parents of children we should just stamp the kid with an id number and record papers on whoever happens to have custody of a kid at any given time. Forget statistics and medical research and maternity and paternity. Get rid of the paternity suit and child support by people who are responsible for causing the existence of a child. If it is not important for these kids to be accurately recorded as the offspring of the parents who reproduced to create them then its not important for anyone to have that so let’s just scrap it and fly by the seat of our pants.

    • The problem with terminology is that unless we all agree on terms than we confuse each other. So for instance. I’m fairly confident that the woman raising this child–Kelly Burke–is the legal mother of the child. She’ll also be the social and the psychological mother of the child. That means that people around the child will very likely call her the mother. So kids will look out the window and say “your mom is here” when she arrives to pick someone up. And when the school has parent/teacher conferences, they’ll say “oh, you must be Liam’s mother.” And so on.

      Now you say “she’s not technically the mother” by which I think you mean “she is not the genetic mother.” that’s true, too. But if you suddenly cropped up at the parent/teacher conference and said “That’s not Liam’s mother” people might not understand that you meant “that’s not his genetic mother.

      And indeed, one could have endless fights about whether she is or is not Liam’s mother when in fact, if the language is more precise we might find we totally agree.

      Same is true with the sisters. Let’s imagine that next year Kelly has another child who is raised by her along with Liam. I think most of the world would call that child Liam’s sister, even if they had no information at all about the genetics. At the same time, Liam’s relationship with the older twins is a special one–they will never have lived in the same household and they will be raised by totally different (not overlapping) social/psychological parents.. So he might want some way to refer to them that captures that–so that people don’t think that they grew up together or had the same parents (because many people do think that when you say “this is my sister.”)

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