Who is a parent?

On Monday we sent out from the DC Network office invitations to our members for the national meeting on 17th March.  The title of the main session is Nature/Nurture: What do we really know?   This seems to have struck a chord as we have been swamped by applications for places.  Distinguished geneticist Professor Marcus Pembrey will be the speaker at this session.  He will have the rather daunting task of trying to put into terms those of us with inadequate scientific educations can understand, modern thinking about the complex relationship between what genes contribute to who we are and how much nurture modifies this blueprint.  And this is before taking epigenetics into account.  Luckily, this emerging science is a particular speciality of Professor Pembrey and I know many parents of donor conceived children will be interested to learn how the environment of the womb may be able to turn on or off functions of certain genes…both inherited from their donor and of course from the genetically connected parent as well.

Now, I am being challenged on comments following a number of my recent blog postings as to who actually is a parent.  Genes will out, believe a number of people who seem to feel that ‘donors’ are parents and that they are relinquishing their children to be brought up by imposters (my word, not theirs) posing as parents.  Some seem to think that the parents and brothers and sisters of the donor somehow trump the non-genetic (social) parent’s relatives in the hierarchy of who is related to who.

My position, shared with DC Network, is that donors provide a vital ingredient in the potential for life which they willingly give (or sometimes sell) to others in order that they might become parents.  Donors do not intend to be parents to the children who may be created from their sperm or eggs.  Recipients of sperm and eggs do intend to become parents.  Because there is an undoubted genetic connection between donor and child – although I would claim, not a parental one – there are many reasons why a child might wish to know more about their donor, and possibly meet him or her, in the future.  No denial of the significance of genes, but emphasis placed on the social and emotional relationships that provide the love, security and safety that are so important for a child when growing up.

What do donor conceived adults think?  Well, Walter’s and my own children and many that we know within DC Network and outside support the above position.  Others do not.  Some are quite clear that they believe they have been deliberately separated from a ‘real’ parent.  Curiosity about donors and half-siblings exist in those who are comfortable with their DC origins and those who are not.  The difference is, who is defined as a parent.

What I want to know is…can Marcus Pembrey throw any light on this debate?


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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10 Responses to Who is a parent?

  1. marilynn says:

    Since I am the one challenging your views, I gotta say you have read a whole lot more into my comments than is there. Take a step back and you will see that I have not implied that the donor and his family trumps the family of the people who intended to be parents. Not at all. You are placing a whole lot more emotional weight on the term parent than I am. Parent as exists in science and business is simply the point of origin of something else. In the animal world some animals are never cared for by their parents – like those baby turtles that pop out on the beach all by themselves. They have parents they just don’t take care of them. Obviously children bond with those who care for them and won’t with those who don’t. Pretty cut and dry.

    But in as much as the donor does not meet the legal definition of the word parent neither does the social or adoptive father meet the medical definition of the word parent. The lines of communication with the child’s genetic family are cut and that places all of the child’s paternal family at a disadvantage as they cannot apply the knowledge of one another’s health to themselves and their children the way they would be able to if those lines were open. The only other time a non-adopted person does not know who their immediate relatives are is when a crime like abandonment, paternity fraud or kidnapping is committed. Plenty of children grow up without fathers but its typically because they abandoned the mother and have not been located but its not for the lack of trying by the mother. Most mother’s will try hard to make sure their offspring are supported by their fathers and know their paternal relatives. For people with genetic fathers who were gamete donors they wonder why would their mother’s not try to ensure they had a relationship with him? Why did her husband have to replace the genetic father when everyone else gets to have a dad and a step dad. Why did they have to be cut off from half their relatives? Was that necessary?

    • oliviasview says:

      OK Marilynn, glad you clarified that, although the word ‘parent’ gets used in everyday life (rather than science and business as you suggest) as the person who cares for a child, NOT the person who is genetically related.
      However, I have never come across a donor conceived person who has felt this (paragraph below) way…have you really?

      “For people with genetic fathers who were gamete donors they wonder why would their mother’s not try to ensure they had a relationship with him? Why did her husband have to replace the genetic father when everyone else gets to have a dad and a step dad. Why did they have to be cut off from half their relatives? Was that necessary?”

      • marilynn says:

        Yes of course. That is not the kind of thing a person pulls out of their hat. Its layers deep in people who have good relationships with social fathers because they may feel their mother opted to serve her husband’s needs over theirs. Other people have great relationships with their fathers and their step fathers, why did they have to be cut off from their relatives? What purpose does excluding them from their genetic family serve? Read back a couple of days Karen discusses wishing she had her social and bio parent in her life from the begining.

  2. marilynn says:

    Donors do relinquish their parental rights over their offspring at birth. They sign consent forms agreeing not to seek a relationship with them or challenge paternity. How could someone not see that as relinquishing their child? Would you have purchased the sperm of a man who had not agreed to let you use it to get pregnant? You would have no use for sperm if he said it could only be used for research. Would you have wanted the sperm of a man who said he’d help you get pregnant but would not abandon his obligations to provide support to his offspring and have contact with them? No. The sperm is no good unless it comes with an agreement too waive rights to his offspring at birth. He is the parent of his own offspring and it is with his permission that your husband was allowed to assume the roll of father in their lives. In fact it is with the permission of you and the donor that he has played that roll. I would not go so far as to call social parents impostors. They are not impostors if they told the child the truth they are not pretending to be related. Its important to understand that the donor is the parent (source) of his offspring, he did not have to allow them to be raised by other people. He’s in a position of authority to make that call over his own children. The question the children will as is why he did not want to take care of them. That question cannot be answered by providing a warm nurturing home environment. Can it?

  3. oliviasview says:

    “Donors do relinquish their parental rights over their offspring at birth”. In my book, donors do not have parental rights over their gametes, which are ingredients of conception, NOT offspring. They certainly relinquish rights over any child born as a result of their gametes being brought together with the gametes of another.

    Once again Marilynn, my experience is that children, young people, most adults, absolutely do not wonder why their donor did not want to take care of them. They have perfectly good parents (my definition of parent, not yours) and would not want the donor to be in that position.

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

    Olivia, you mention quite often about your own personal experience talking with ‘donor’ conceived people who do not feel the same as other (more outspoken?) ‘donor’ conceived people who challenge the ethics of the practice. I was wondering, can you give us an idea of just how many ‘donor’ conceived people you’ve spoken to? Their ages, how you connected with them and if their social parents are actively involved in your support group? Those factors I think would play a significant role in what they share with you and your questions, how they are posed, would also influence the outcome. Have you ever considered doing a survey on the feelings of these people (adults/children conceived via ‘donor’ gametes)? Asking questions similar to those asked in the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” study? The sample base will still be skewed of course but it would a be very interesting exercise and might be useful to parents of DCP involved w/the DC Network.

  5. oliviasview says:

    Hi Karen – Can’t really say how many donor conceived adults I have had contact with. Must run into dozens over the years and with lots of ways of coming into contact with them. Sometimes through DCN, sometimes at conferences or via the Donor Unknown film. Some I have had in depth conversations with, others just email exchanges.
    Our daughter Zannah will be doing a survey of the donor conceived adults she is in contact with for her anthropology dissertation over the next few months. She is linked with a whole range of people covering those who are very comfortable to those who are pretty stridently anti-DC. The focus of the exercise will be on ‘who is family’. If she needs more recruits I’ll let you know. I hope that as she is a DC adult herself people will be very honest with her. She is certainly open-minded about what she will find.

    • My parent's donor is my father says:

      Thank you for that clarification Olivia. Yes, I know about your daughter’s survey. Although I am not participating, I very much look forward to reading her dissertation.

  6. marilynn says:

    If the practice is going to continue why can’t the offspring have two legally recognized families – one that raises them to adulthood but the other for medical record keeping and vital statistics everybody knows everybody name right from the get go? Parents who don’t know the onging health of their offspring reproduce in a vacuum assuming all their children are healthy. Parents are suppose to be the gatekeepers of their children’s health information so that knowledge can be applied to prevent their other children and family members from getting sick or at least give doctors the information necessary to make educated diagnosis. When parents are estranged as gamete donors are their children and their other family members are at a grave disadvantage compared to folks in contact with their immediate relatives. So what if everyone had to stay in ongoing contact. What if the process did not sever the other kind of family ties? Your not generally focused on that other kind of family but its real and no less important than family in the psychological and emotional sense

  7. oliviasview says:

    Don’t know about legally recognised families Marilynn, but I would agree with Walter in his comment –
    “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.”
    Walter and I have always assumed that the way donor conception would go would be towards donors and recipient parents choosing each other and remaining in contact. It would then be up to the person conceived to decide if they wished to continue that relationship as they moved into adulthood themselves. If they had had good quality contact with their donor and developed an attachment then it would be likely they would remain in their lives and be part of the extended family. But this is all based on human contact and the formation of social and emotional relationships. It possibly has little to do with genetic connection. It might do but also might not. Many adults feel closer to people they have known all their lives but are not genetically to, than to those with whom they have biological ties. However, to be honest I don’t see this change happening in my lifetime or yours (unless you are a LOT younger than me)

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