Impact of culture on thinking about genetic connections

It’s very odd being accused of not caring about genetic or biological connections when a lot of my time over the past twenty years has been spent fighting for the ending of donor anonymity in the UK.  This was so that donor conceived people would have the right to know who their donor was at age 18 and to have contact with him or her, if that was what they chose to do.  Some of those who posted comments on my blog about the film Anonymous Father’s Day seemed rather disparaging of these efforts, seeing 18 as far too late for a young person and a donor to have a meaningful relationship.  But then they tend to see donors as parents…even relinquishing parents, and if you have that view then I guess 18 would seem rather late on for a parent-like attachment.

I am also told that I am in denial about the strength of genetic connections because of the pain and confusion recognition of this would cause me and my children.  It’s interesting how people with strong views seem to think they can know the minds of others, but without bothering to listen (something of course they are keen to accuse me of) or take on board nuances of expression.   They prefer black and white.  If this person had bothered to read an earlier exchange between me and another Australian, she would have realised the very mixed feelings I have on the question of genetic connection.  On the whole I think emotional attachments and relationships trump genetic and biological connection, but I am aware from experiences within my own family, as well as elsewhere, of the power of actual genetic connection. Also the fantasies that many people can have about it as well.  My views on this are not rigid and I’m definitely open to persuasion, but the emotive language and extreme positions taken by some of the anti-donor conception lobby only serve to alienate as far as I am concerned.

Walter has been up to his eyes putting together the bid for the Nuffield Foundation so has been unaware of the traffic on my blog.  He had a look at it today and decided to weigh in.  Thank goodness he did.  His thoughtful post provides an historical and philosophical context to a debate that was threatening to become a bit out of hand.  I am re-printing it here to save readers in a hurry the trouble of scrolling through the comments…but do encourage anyone interested to do so.  A fascinating read.

“Assertions such as “there is a strong and deep biological connection between people with genetic links” rely on a view of what is “natural”, or part of human nature, as against what is “unnatural” and, so the unspoken argument goes, therefore morally wrong. Such arguments were long deployed to support views about the “inherent ” inferiority of certain races; or the ill-treatment of (or worse) of gay and lesbian people. Philosophers have taught us that equating “unnatural practices” with immorality is better understood as an expression of political or cultural values.
The significance of genetic connections in people’s lives is not what anthropologists call a human constant. (The desire of people to have children is a human constant.) Genetic connections may have more or less profound importance for people depending on the culture in which they live. Connection to or membership of a larger social unit than the “Western model family” may be more important to people in some cultures than exact parentage.
But let us accept that in the culture of “Western liberal societies” in the 21st century, genetic connections are seen by many/most people as having some/lots of/enormous significance. They are clearly not of no significance at all in our culture. But I would argue that the extent of this significance has changed over time and will continue to change, just as views about sexuality have changed in our culture. We would now say that discrimination on the grounds of sexuality is immoral, and we encourage lesbian and gay people to assert their right to be treated equally. 100 years ago it was not so. A life as an openly gay person was impossible. If parents encouraged a son whom they recognised as gay to come out and lead an open life they would have been thought mad and/or despicably cruel and immoral since it would have condemned their son to the status of a social outcast.
60 or 100 years ago it was thought that illegitimacy would confer a similar outcast status. So those who used donor insemination in the 1950′s and subsequent decades thought that it was best to preserve this as a secret from the child, and that that this was in the child’s best interests. (We might now say they were doing this to protect themselves as well.) Of course there has been a major cultural change about illegitimacy since then.
The fact that in Western liberal society we now think that it is best for a donor conceived child to know of his or her origins is a symptom and result of a change in cultural and social attitudes. We do not expect the world to treat our child as a social outcast. But this is not necessarily so in other cultures. In some Mediterranean/Arab/Middle Eastern cultures acknowledging that a child is other than the genetic product of his or her parents (for whatever reason) does confer the status of social outcast.
I recognise that some donor conceived people feel damaged, not because society treats them as outcasts, but because genetic connections are accorded an [arguable] degree of significance in our culture, and lack of those connections can damage a person’s self-worth by comparison with others who have those connections. Those feelings are real and undeniable. And I mean no disrespect to such individuals to say that such reactions are cultural responses, rather than feelings generated by immutable forces of “human nature”.
Relations in families have also changed over time in our culture. Only a few generations ago many children had very distant relations with their parents. Couples produced children because there was no contraception. Parents had financial responsibility for children and the children had responsibility to maintain infirm parents. The notion that a profound love should be expected to develop between parents and children was not as prevalent as it is now. We now believe that a loving family is the best environment for a child in which to develop and that lack of it can be profoundly damaging. Genetic connections are no guarantee of love and there is plenty of love in non genetically connected families.
I have no doubt that in 40 years time cultural and social attitudes will have changed profoundly again. People will look back at what we are doing and saying now and say “how could they have thought that was right”. But unless there is a major reversal of the trends of the past 200 years, our society will become more pluralistic and less culturally conformist. Unless scientific advances in reproduction overcome infertility, I don’t expect donor conception to have been abandoned, and not on a wave of revulsion generated by some of the arguments I have read in this blog, though by definition I could be wrong. I do think for instance that clinics will no longer be secret brokers between would-be parents and donors who don’t meet, and that it will seem normal for donors to play a (difficult to envisage now) part in children’s lives.
I do believe that bringing up children is the most responsible thing that people can do in their lives – both in the sense that it carries heavy responsibilities and should not be undertaken “lightly, wantonly or unadvisedly”, and in the sense that it is noble and worthy. Unless we are geniuses whose art or science will stun the world, transmitting to another generation one’s values is about the only thing that may leave a lasting impression after we are gone. Our genes if we can transmit them (I couldn’t) may continue, but transmitting one’s values may do more for the world than simply transmitting one’s genes.”


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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18 Responses to Impact of culture on thinking about genetic connections

  1. My parent's donor is my father says:

    For whatever it’s worth, I think this is very sweet even though there are parts I don’t agree with…Regardless, very glad the two of you help others navigate the complicated issues surrounding ‘donor’ conception. Happy New Year….keep on keeping on (PS: Olivia, thank you for the civil discourse)
    -Karen Clark

  2. DC Mum says:
    Olivia have you seen the new vacation link above with a partner clinic in the UK?

    • Hi Sue
      I hadn’t seen this particular site but we are aware of at least one UK clinic that has a link with a clinic in Ukraine. Sadly others have links with Spanish, Cypriot and American clinics too. This is mostly for egg donation. Very few UK residents go abroad for sperm donation. We do everything we can to persuade UK residents not to go abroad, pointing out to them the potential long-term implications for their children of doing so. We are particularly concerned when donors are anonymous, as they are in most places outside of the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

  3. DC Mum says:

    Hi Olivia
    Yes this kind of donor conception – egg production, is very disturbing and what is equally disturbing is that places like the UK and America actually allow partner clinics to exist in their countries. It is appalling and out of control and I think you would agree that there need to be very tight reins in this particular industry for very obvious reasons.
    Very sad that it has come to this.

  4. marilynn says:

    I do believe that bringing up children is the most responsible thing that people can do in their lives – both in the sense that it carries heavy responsibilities and should not be undertaken “lightly, wantonly or unadvisedly”, and in the sense that it is noble and worthy. Unless we are geniuses whose art or science will stun the world, transmitting to another generation one’s values is about the only thing that may leave a lasting impression after we are gone. Our genes if we can transmit them (I couldn’t) may continue, but transmitting one’s values may do more for the world than simply transmitting one’s genes.”

    Should producing children be taken lightly by the producers? Should society be sure that a child who is not going to be raised within his own genetic family was obtained by another family in an ethical and above board manner? Adoption does attempt to respond to the seriousness you talk about above. They try to make sure there is proof that the genetic parents really intended to relinquish the child and that no money was exchanged and that the people raising the child are not going to prostitute the child or whatever. Should these issues be covered more concretely in black and white with signatures and court approval all around rather than in a file in a doctors office?

  5. DC Mum says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I do believe that prospective parents of DC should be going through mandatory investigations such as those who are adopting. Just because DC parents can afford the fertility treatment and donor costs in most countries, does not by any means justify “placing” a child in a home where emotional support and needs may not be met. Being able to afford such treatment does not mean one is automatically capable. Most definitely a file in a Dr’s office is not suffice. Obviously one parent is intended in most cases to be biological but the recipient parent should indeed fulfil certain requirements, I believe.
    You have made some very valid and real points.

    • marilynn says:

      aw shucks dc mom I’m blushing. And you are evolved and probably have a child that is truthful with you (on this issue at least – would that it would manifest truth telling when it comes to whether or not homework is complete)

  6. oliviasview says:

    DC children are BORN into families, not ‘placed’ there. Surely the important thing is to prepare both parents for life as a DC family rather than requiring the non-genetic parent to “fulfil certain requirements”. Both parents need to understand the responsibility they have to be open with the child about their origins and to support him or her in any way (as any parent would) in the future. At DC Network we attempt to do this in our Preparation for DC Parenting workshops. Counsellors in clinics (counselling being mandatory in the UK if using gamete donation) also prepare potential parents for the future.

    • marilynn says:

      No they are certainly not placed in the care of anyone they originated from but they are most definitely placed in the care of people they did not originate from. We cannot overlook the consent forms that people sign when it is their intention to provide gametes, not for research but for the purpose of producing offspring that they agree not to raise themselves. The provider does have to agree not to challenge another person’s claim of maternity or paternity with dna evidence to the contrary and does have to agree to not seek visitation and whatnot. The provider does agree to relinquish his or her parental obligations in order for them to be assumed by an outsider. The deliberate gamete provider does not have to go producing his or her offspring for others to raise, they pointedly relinquish them to be raised. Or at least we have to assume they agreed to reproduce and relinquish. We don’t really know for sure because most people obtain gametes through middle men who promise they obtained consent but the buyer has no way of knowing for sure. If I were told that I was not the offspring of the people raising me and I was the offspring of a donor – not an adopted person, my first question would be show me the proof that my bio parent knew he/she was being reproduced show me their signed consent to transfer their parental obligation to people outside his or her own family. Show me court approval of this transfer of obligations prove to me that I was not stolen or trafficked. Prove to me that I am not a clinic mix up or the result of gamet theft by doctors taking fertile and potent patient gametes selling them against their will. It should be like step parent adoption. With the consent of the related parent, unchallenged by the relinquishing parent back ground checks are not required. In the case of both parents being gamete providers full background checks should be expected. There is a transfer from one parent to the unrelated person. It does not occur prior to conception – people become parents after their offspring are born. The consent forms say they relinquish rights upon the birth of their offspring – not at conception. That would be silly. Its just we don’t let people relinquish rights prior to birth in adoption (well we have started to but its a bad idea), so we should not do it when people provide gametes

      • oliviasview says:

        Marilynn – You go from talking about gametes to talking about offspring. They are not the same thing. Gametes are an ingredient in the potential for life. They are not fully formed children. It takes two to tango and make children. The donor’s gametes mixed with those from someone else would make another completely unique person. It is not children they are giving away. I know you disagree but this is where I stand.
        In the UK we are covered by legislation that absolutely covers and governs the rights and responsibilities of all parties so your questions about how you can be sure what happens in fertility clinics does not apply here.
        We have learned many lessons from adoption but it is not the same as donor conception. Adopted children start out in one family and then move to another, often with many foster carers in-between. Their circumstances are entirely different to donor conceived children who are born into the family they continue to be raised in.

  7. DC Mum says:

    I believe what it all boils down to is getting back to the rights of the child. Supporting them, being honest with them and honouring their rights to knowledge of their families.
    We have to admit in all honesty that in creating children …… human beings, in this way, we are doing it “intentionally”. “Intentionally” taking away what in fact is not ours to take, without permission from the person created, who obviously cannot give that at the time, without permission from biological Grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters or cousins. Without “background checks”.
    In comparison adopted children are relinquished through “circumstance” in where it is deemed impossible for the biological parents to provide a home and care for that child. The adoptee parents go through rigorous investigation as to wether they can provide this for the child and a panel decides the very important and delicate issues surrounding this childs wellbeing.
    I know that in my country that adoptive children must also be provided with biological information about their families and when these laws came into place this was made retrospective and people were finding their families all over the place.
    We feel sorry for adoptive people who cannot find their families. Why do we not feel sorry for donor conceived people who cannot find their families?
    Again, relinquished pre-conception v’s post conception should not invade upon their rights.
    This was our “choice” to place dc people in this position.
    (haha – homework is a whole other story…..!)

  8. marilynn says:

    Olivia I think I understand now how it is that some people view the offspring of a donor as being born into an unrelated family. This is huge for me but I think you explained it here:

    “You go from talking about gametes to talking about offspring. They are not the same thing. Gametes are an ingredient in the potential for life. They are not fully formed children. It takes two to tango and make children. The donor’s gametes mixed with those from someone else would make another completely unique person. It is not children they are giving away.”

    You kinda see these donors as frozen in time.
    Time passes for the donor just as it passes for the people planning to raise his offspring; they are not parents at the time of donation or the moment of conception any more than him. The donor is just a donor as you say, but that is only true until his offspring are born, then he becomes a parent too – a biological one; he becomes an estranged biological parent to offspring being raised as children of their mother’s marriages (quasi-marital children). You can’t freeze the donor in time back at conception or donation. He is present at his offspring’s birth in the abstract like the rest of his relatives that are becoming aunts and uncles and cousins and great-great-grandparents. People don’t even have to be alive and they still keep assuming new family titles – there does not need to be an interpersonal relationship for that to occur.
    Have you ever paid for an appliance with an extended warranty? The company is paid in advance and has to fix it later in the event that it breaks. Donors are paid in advance to stay out of their offspring’s lives later in the event that they are born.

    Intended parents pay now for the biological fathers absence later. Its just deferred performance of duties. He has to agree to give up his parental rights in advance of their birth. When they are born that clause goes into effect. This fact is not really debatable, I am pretty sure you have a solid understanding of what goes down I’m just way more blunt describing it than alot of other folks.

    Its important to read the text of the release forms signed by gamete donors before saying that all they give up is eggs or semen. That is all they give up at the point of donation but the larger part of their agreements involve performance of duties during the point of time after their offspring are born until the time that their offspring are 18 years old. They have to promise not to sue for custody or visitation, promise not to contact the people raising their offspring etc they have to agree to waive their parental rights and agree that the intended parents will be the legal parents of their offspring. They agree to relinquish all parental rights upon the birth of their offspring.

    So if they were just giving up sperm there would be no need to sign release forms that say all that stuff. If they were just giving up sperm then it would not matter if the sperm was potent or not. If they were just giving up sperm they could put a qualifier on its use saying that a woman could only get pregnant with it if she agreed to raise the child with him as father and her husband as step father. How can we look at this process and say that all he gives up is sperm knowing that nobody would want it were it were it not his willingness to give his offspring up were it not for his willingness to stay out of the lives of his offspring until they are adults?

    I arrived at my opinion that donors give up their offspring (not just their gametes) by reading the forms they sign because they say exactly that. How do you arrive at the opinion that donors don’t give up their offspring (just gametes) after reading the release forms they sign that say exactly that?

    • oliviasview says:

      Well, I’m glad you feel you have been able to get into my head Marilynn because I’m still finding it difficult to really get into yours.
      I increasingly feel we need to find some new words when talking about families by donation. There I go again, using the word family. I’m not sure you and I mean the same thing when we use the term…like parent also. I just think I have managed to see that you use it as a scientific or business term (as in ‘parent’ company for instance) and then you use it in the way that I do (as someone who looks after their child on a day to day basis). I also find some of the language you use highly emotive, like ‘estranged biological parent’. Surely an estrangement has to come via some sort of problem or disagreement that has occurred between at least two people who know each other. You can’t have an estrangement from someone you don’t know. And then there’s ‘quasi-marital children’, What on earth does this mean? And referring to uncles, aunts, cousins etc, being created every time a child is born via donor conception. Surely this cannot be so. These are familial terms. And here we are back with this hard to define word again. What or who is family?
      You also say that donors are paid to stay out of the lives of offspring. This sounds as if they would want to be in their lives if they hadn’t been paid to stay away. This is surely far from the truth. The intention of most donors (as things currently stand) is that they do not want to be in the lives of the children they help to create. All those in the UK, and US and other donors who have agreed to be identifiable, are willing to be available to share medical histories and anything else a DC person is interested in, but their intention is not to be part of their lives. This may change as the years pass. You will see from my response to you on the Who is a Parent post, that Walter and I envisage a time when the system will change significantly…but it has a long way to go before that happens.

  9. DC Mum says:

    Not to mention that EVERYONE knows that the intent is to create a human being. This is NOT like donating blood, kidneys, lungs or heart. These mere “gametes” are most definitely intended to create a new unique human life who belongs to a blood line with biological history. We cannot pretend that this doesn’t exist. It does.
    The argument can go on forever and ever and still nothing will ever change the fact that this new human life is the product of the bio parent and the donor.
    Of course the social parent is a major player in the childs/adults life. Of course we can create happy families and live happy lives BUT at the same time as recipient parents we MUST acknowledge the significance of the biological history instead of making out it simply isn’t important. It is incredibly important. Respect, support and love for the very people we create.
    If we use this technology to create a family then we must also take responsibility for our actions and be as responsible as is possible in these circumstances and not continue to argue that the biological family is of no significance. I wonder who drew this line at 18? We have to “listen” and stop blocking the facts. It is only fear keeping the argument going.
    Dont worry, if you are a good, loving and caring parent you will always have a wonderful relationship with your child and your child will always consider you the “parent”. However we also have to realise that this child might also enjoy a relationship or even friendship with biological family and why would we deny this.
    Fear is your answer.

    • oliviasview says:

      You are right of course Sue, Fear does rule the heads and hearts of many DC parents. This is one of the things that we address in many ways within DC Network. It is slow, painstaking work but we are making headway.

  10. Gillian Handyside says:

    I love this: “Unless we are geniuses whose art or science will stun the world, transmitting to another generation one’s values is about the only thing that may leave a lasting impression after we are gone.”
    Thank you Walter

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