In the course of the public debates about use of third-party gametes (particularly what are commonly called “sperm donors”) those opposed often raise the specter of “accidental incest.” (One of the more well-known instances is here, and it’s particularly notable for three reasons: It got a ton of press, it really has nothing to do with use of third-party gametes as it’s about adopted-out siblings, and it is quite possible that it never happened.)
In any event, the idea is that if people do not know they are genetically related then siblings (like the possibly mythical twins who were adopted out into different families) might unwittingly meet, fall in love and have children. I’ve read, in fact, that the affinity arising from the genetic similarity might even make it more likely that siblings would feel attracted to each other, though I have no idea if this is the case.
I don’t mean to dismiss this risk out of hand. It’s obviously possible. The twins story may not be true, but it could be true. And the problem is clearly exacerbated when you have men providing sperm to create scores of offspring. Indeed, concerns about unintentional incest are most often raised precisely in this context. And for what it is worth, I am fine with limiting the number of children who can be conceived with any particular providers sperm (or eggs, but that’s less an issue.)
Now what brings this all up right now is this report from the Hay Festival. Professor Susan Golombok appeared there. She’s a woman whose work I really admire. And, according to press reports, she expressed some concern about the risks of accidental incest. Of course, from that Telegraph article, you cannot tell quite what the concerns were. Most striking to me was this quote:
“I don’t know what the actual chances are, but it’s probably higher than people think.”
Not exactly what you’d think of as a concrete estimate, but something to something to consider, perhaps. And not really the main focus of her work, which I think is better captured here.
Yet even so there is something to think about here. For me the question is this: what is the problem with accidental incest? Why is this such an unsettling specter? This is really a variant on a more general question I often raise in my family law class: Why do we prohibit incest? What is it that really worries us.
Of course there is the genetics problem. Inbreeding. Think the hemophiliac royal families of Europe or the Pharoahs of Egqypt or whatever else you learned about in your youth. But if recessive genes were the only problem then we wouldn’t worry about same-sex sibling couples (and I don’t actually know if we do worry about them) or about couples who don’t have any plans to have children–older couples, say? And we might find technological solutions–routine screening for genetic compatibility?
I think there is something else going on at the same time. Imagine an adopted brother and sister–raised in the same household by the same (social) parents–decide to couple up. Any reaction? I think it is kind of creepy myself. And yet that’s nothing to do with genetics. It’s something else entirely.
And I think about the young couple who learn–on the threshold of marriage, let’s say–that they share a common genetic ancestor. I think the weirdness they would feel is not simply about the genetics. There is something about the relationship of sister/brother (or sister/sister or brother/brother.) Even if you never planned to have children I would imagine you would find it unsettling. You have broken (or are about to break) a taboo–a social rule. (See, if you have not, Lone Star.)
Before I finish here, though, I want to highlight the thoughts Professor Golombok offers on this:
But of course if children are to be told [they were born from a donor], with this move towards greater openness, then it’s going to be easier because it won’t happen inadvertently.
Which suggests to me that may this is one more reason we need to tack towards honesty. If people know they can act accordingly. Maybe all you need to know is that you were conceived with sperm from a third-party. I’m not sure you need to know the name–because if the other person also was, then you’d best be on high alert. But maybe this is an argument for why the child should have the ability to find the name if/when he/she wants to.