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.”