There have been two stories in the good old Guardian over the last few days that have once again raised the issue of a child’s ‘right’ to be raised by biological parents. In today’s main paper, and in a slightly expanded version on the website, Randeep Ramesh the social affairs editor reports on the spread in Europe of ‘baby boxes’ where children who are unable to be cared for by their mother/parents can be abandoned anonymously to the safety and care of a hospital. The United Nations is apparently very concerned, warning that the practice “contravenes the right of the child to be known and cared for by his or her parents”. Those in favour of the boxes argue that such rights are secondary to saving the life of a child who might otherwise been been allowed to perish. Whatever the merits of each argument it does seem worrying that apparently almost 200 of these boxes have been installed across the continent in the past decade in nations as diverse as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Latvia. Since 2000 more than 400 children have been abandoned in the hatches, with faith groups and right-wing politicians spearheading the revival of the controversial practice that was common in Victorian times but had virtually disappeared over the 20th Century.
Although the article does not say, presumably babies left in these hatches are adopted quickly and because of this do not suffer the disruption of attachment that can happen when babies are taken into care in this country and probably passed round a number of foster carers before permanent adoption or long-term fostering takes place. But they are likely to forever be foundlings, not knowing anything about their genetic parents and the circumstances of their birth. How damaging this is for children seems to vary enormously.
Andrew Rowan was 32 when his mother died and he learned from a letter she had left that not only was he adopted but that he had been abandoned on a doorstep. These revelations, along with the death of his mother were a terrible shock. Andrew had had a very happy and secure childhood, despite his father dying when he was eight. He felt he couldn’t have had a more loving home but now these huge questions hung over his beginnings.
It was not until fifteen years later that Andrew decided to try to find out something about his birth parents. Through an item about him on Scottish TV a man contacted him saying that he looked like his father. DNA testing subsequently proved that they were half-brothers. The man was able to fill in some of the gaps in the past, but Andrew has not contacted the woman he thinks is probably his birth mother. He would be happy if she sought him out but does not want to disrupt her life with her current family. As most abandoned babies never find out who their birth parents are he feels very lucky that he has found out about one of them.
What is so interesting about Andrew is how philosophical and calm he seems about the lack of knowledge about his beginnings and how, like Zannah and one of her respondents to the survey she conducted for her dissertation, he seems to have a sense of ‘more’ rather than ‘less’ because of his start in life. To quote,
“I don’t feel judgemental about what my birth mother did. Not knowing my exact birth date is strange but not upsetting, and being named by a nurse makes me feel fond towards her rather than bitter towards my birth mother. “Abandoned” is such as emotive word, but I don’t feel any sadness or rejection, because I don’t know the circumstances of my birth. Instead, I feel unique.”
What is it I keep wondering that helps this man feel this way and can we learn from him something about the different ways donor conceived people feel about themselves? He certainly seems to have a resilience that will come partly from the loving and secure experiences he had with his adoptive parents (although he spent the first year of his life in a children’s home). He is a geneticist by profession (a happy coincidence?) so we can assume above average intelligence, another feature of resilience identified by Professor Michael Rutter. Andrew has also been able to answer some of the questions around his genetic parentage, establishing for sure who his father was. From evidence recently gathered for an about to be published article on one of the largest UK donor sibling groups, knowing who their donor was and having contact with half-sibs seems to help donor conceived people balance their understanding of the inheritance they have received from both genetic and non-genetic sources. Most of this group are happy to acknowledge the influence of upbringing and culture on shaping who they are today, as well as being thrilled at noticing a ‘certain something’ that seems to connect them all and enjoying relationships with half-sibs. This is in contrast to the almost genetic determinism of SOME of the DC adults interviewed by Zannah. These were all DC people who had not been able to find any information about their donor or half-sibs and in addition had often had unsatisfactory experiences of being parented.
I’m really asking questions here, not looking to provide answers. In our workshops we do a session on What We Know and What We Don’t Know (about donor conception and how offspring feel about it). What we definitely know is that ‘telling’ early is protective of shock about the knowledge of being donor conceived but that most children/young people/adults are curious to a greater or lesser degree at some point in their lives. Like Andrew some people survive the shock of late disclosure with greater equanimity than others. Having information and the possibility of contact is enormously helpful for some, but of little interest to others. Just knowing it is there if you choose to have it feels right and one of the main reasons for encouraging donor recipients to stay in the UK for treatment.
Let’s hope that those babies abandoned in the appallingly named ‘baby hatches’ in Europe are adopted by people who are not only open with them about their origins, but, if their children are curious about their beginnings, are able to be supportive of their needs.
Andrew Rowan’s story appeared in the Guardian magazine on 9th June 2012. Today’s article on baby boxes can be found at