Anonymity and Secrecy, Part I

I spent this past weekend at a wonderful conference in Boston.   Lots of very smart people thinking about ART and many things related to ART.   One of the recurrent topics was the importance of anonymity those who provide gametes for third-party reproduction.    (I know that this seems a very clunky way to put it–why not just say “sperm donors” and be done with it?   There are reasons, as regular readers (of my now irregular blog) will know.   For one thing, there’s the word “donor”–which is perhaps not the best word to use for people who are paid.  For another, there are overlapping issues for egg providers, and it may be that the overlapping issues are converging.    I cannot discuss all this here, but suffice it to say that I choose the clunky language deliberately.)

Anyway, one of the things that interested me was that many different questions were raised and there seemed to be some real disagreement in how to think about these questions.   Since I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about anonymity in the past, I thought it might be time to revisit (and maybe reorganize?) my own thoughts on the subject.   This could take a couple of posts, but I think it’s worth it.

So first off, there’s what one even means by anonymity.   Anonymity is related to secret-keeping.   An anonymous donor (in the philanthropic context) is one whose identity is kept secret.   But when you think about third-party reproduction, you can think of different levels of secret-keeping. 

For instance, heterosexual couples might keep the very fact that they used a third-party gamete provider secret.   They might pretend that the child is genetically related to both of the parents (here I mean social and legal parents), when in fact this is not the case.    And even here I can divide levels of secrecy further.   The couple might keep the use of third-party gametes completely secret, not even telling the child, or they might keep it secret from the public at large while acknowledging use within some smaller private sphere.

I don’t think there’s any general public entitlement to know who has used third-party gametes.  I’m not one who would favor stamping birth certificates, say.  (Shades of Bastard Out of Carolina!)    Thus, secret-keeping in that context is fine by me.

But I think differently about secrecy within the family.   There’s a long and not very happy history of family secret keeping around adoption.  I’m thinking here of children who were adopted but who do not discover this fact until late in their lives.    I think there’s something to be learned from this:  Not telling a child they are adopted amounts (in my view) to lying to the child.   And it’s a lie about something fairly important.   Thus, it will very often lead to feelings of betrayal, which cannot possibly be a good thing.   (I suspect it also leads to a good deal of internal stress, as the prospect that the child will learn the truth must loom large at many moments.)

I think the same is true as to the use of third-party gametes.  If you don’t tell a child that they are not genetically related to both of their parents, the child (of heterosexual parents, anyway) will often assume the contrary–that they are.  And if they learn that this isn’t true, they’ll (rightly) feel lied to.   Further, it seems to me that the odds are very good that they will learn this sooner or later.   And it seems to me that as medical science becomes more and more entwined with genetics, the odds that they will learn the truth are increasing.   Perhaps it is possible that a child will live its entire life never knowing the truth and maybe, were that to happen, it would be okay.  But surely truth is better than the gamble that they won’t find out?    Particularly when you add in the cost of the (constant?) worry that the child will find out?

You’ll notice that I referred to heterosexual parents above.  That’s because lesbian and gay parents as well as single parents are distinctly different.  While they may very well be users of third-party gametes, they have little choice but to be honest about that.   Obviously the missing gametes came from somewhere outside the couple.  Thus, these families have no opportunity to lie or conceal.   And in fact, these families have in many ways paved the way for heterosexual families.  Their need to talk to children about their origins has diminished the stigma and broadened understanding.

All of which leads me to my first conclusion, which can also serve as my stopping point for today:  While families may be entitled to keep their use of third-party gametes private vis-à-vis the world in general, they should not keep this information from the children so conceived.   That’s important because it means that the children will inevitably wonder about where those gametes came from–and that would be the next thing to think about when it comes to anonymity.





9 responses to “Anonymity and Secrecy, Part I

  1. Why tell the truth to the child but not have that very same truth printed on their birth record. Your telling them the truth without the official paperwork to back it up. Not talking about stamping a person’s birth record to reflect methods of conception, but rather to identify them as the offspring of their biological mother and father so that there won’t be the risk of them or the world at large misunderstanding there to be a biological relationship where none exists. There can be other documents to demonstrate legal authority over a child and there are frequently situations where a parent has lost all parental authority and yet their name still appears on their birth record as a matter of fact.

    • I know you and I disagree about this and I won’t go into great detail here, but I have two different concerns that lead me to treat birth certificates differently.

      First, and perhaps most important, birth certificates are NOT statements of genetic parentage. They are not like pedigree certificates. Maybe you and others would like them to be, and perhaps some day they will be, but right now this is not what they are. They are statements of LEGAL parentage. That’s why adopted children get new birth certificates–to reflect the new legal parents. This being the case, information about manner of conception really doesn’t belong there.

      Second, we require the production of birth certificates for all sorts of purposes–like registering a kid in Seattle for a soccer team. I see no reason why the soccer folks need to know anything about the manner in which a child is conceived. It’s not their business. And so I don’t want to stamp anything about it on the birth certificate, any more than I want to mark the kids whose parents weren’t married, etc.

      Notice that much might change for me IF we had separate documents for genetic lineage and proof of live birth. My point here is simply that this is not what we do now.

      • Completely agree with you on each of your points. The issue is disclosure of genetic lineage not the birth certificate itself. And you’re right there is no need to make more of how the child was conceived or whether they were adopted so they are reminded at every point in their lives. It doesn’t seem right that they should go through that.

        • they have,plenty of reminders everywhere. every dadless,kid who sees a dad has reminders.

          • If their parents are a same sex couple or single you are correct. But that isn’t always the case.

          • I think life is more complicated than this sentence suggests and that it is important to acknowledge this complexity. There are kids who once had a functional father who has abandoned the family. There are kids who once had a functional father who has died. There are kids who never had a functional father but the functional mother wanted there to be a functional father and there are kids who have never had a functional father but have a functional mother (or two) who never intended there to be a functional father. (There may be more categories than this.)

            All of these kids might be “dadless” but they are actually in quite different positions. And at least some of these children see their positions as quite different. So, for instance, the child who grew up with two mothers who remain together may not see herself/himself as similar to the child whose father was present but then chose to leave the family. And that second child may not see herself/himself as similar to the child whose father died. It’s not clear to me that the dadlessness per se is such a unifying force and hence, I’m not at all sure that the reminders are everywhere.

            But I think what I’ve said is all sort of beside the point. I just don’t see why a birth certificate needs to include this information. What purpose does it serve but to mark out or stigmatize?

            • Julie Shapiro wrote: “There are kids who never had a functional father but the functional mother wanted there to be a functional father and there are kids who have never had a functional father but have a functional mother (or two) who never intended there to be a functional father.”

              This is a common pitfall in the alternate world of ART: the conflation/ projection of the PARENT’s feelings on to the child. a child who is not totally brainwashed by the parent has their OWN feelings about their missing parent. a child who’s single mother longs to be married may be totally cool with things the way they are and a child being raised by to mom’s may certainly wish they had a dad. Or not.
              we can agree that people have a variety of responses to life situations that seem superficially similar. In fact i would not differentiate between family structure at all because two individuals with the same family structure can have totally different feelings about it.
              The people who aren’t bothered at all by the absence of their parent, well those people shouldn’t be bothered by a birth certificate either. My response concerns those who are.

              • I agree that we must be careful about conflating feelings of parents with feelings of children, but I don’t think they are independent variables, either. I think the experience of growing up in a family where there is no male social parent because that was always the plan is typically different from the experience of growing up in a family where there was a male social parent and that man died and each of those is different from the experience of growing up in a family where there was a male social parent and he took off. And there are many other variations. All I meant to say is that because these are different experiences, lumping all these different sorts of families together as “fatherless” may actually create a category with very little shared meaning, a category that might be very difficult to generalize about.

                But I think the degree to which any of us sees these as coherent (and useful) categories is bound up with our views about the merits of what we’re talking about. So for example, if you think social access to genetic parents is generally important, then all these genetically fatherless families have a lot more in common and they also have a lot in common with genetically motherless families. But I tend to think that the social situation as being much more important in shaping the child’s actual experience. So for instance, I think that being raised in a (socially) intact family is a far different thing from being shuttled between disputing (social) parents, whether the parents involved are genetically related or not.

                To me the birth certificate listing is a separate thing. Once upon a time birth certificates of children born out of wedlock were stamped “bastard.” Now you could feel (personally) that there is no shame in this but you could still prefer that your child not have such a stamp affixed to her/his birth certificate because of how other people might respond. This is somewhat the same. Why does the soccer coach need this information? (I do think we can imagine a system where there are different bits of paper for different purposes and then this objection might not have any force. I am thinking only of how we currently use birth certificates.)

              • “a child who is not totally brainwashed by the parent has their OWN feelings about their missing parent. ”

                Question K, are you implying that a child who grows up and doesn’t experience extreme pain from not being raised by both biological parents are brainwashed by the parents that raised them? I wasn’t sure but thought I would ask first.

                I think it goes beyond just a family structure. To me it has more to do with the parents themselves how they interact with support and raise their children. What I’ve noticed is that those who are outspoken are ones that were never fully supported by their parents and/or were not told at a young age. Same logic can be applied to any family structure. For me that’s where the focus should be in learning from those who are outspoken listening to their stories and learning from them.

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