I write this in a true quandry. What are we to make of the many new families now being created with the help of a known donor? More importantly how are the children faring or going to fare in the future? What is a dad when a man knowingly gives his sperm to create a child but at the same time agrees that he will have no parental responsibility? And how much does the sexuality of the donor or the structure of the family that a man donates to make a difference?
Known donors come in many varieties. In DC Network there are some heterosexual couple families with teenage children conceived with sperm from someone who is an old family friend. It’s usually a man with children of his own who will have consulted his partner about donating and done so with the intention of being available to the children when they ask questions as they grow up. There are often family meetings once or twice a year and there will have been a growing awareness by the children of their connection to this man. The donor’s own children are also likely to know of the contribution their father has made to the other family. Dad, meanwhile, has been in the family home performing his daily parenting role and the children have a normal child/parent emotional attachment to him.
Earlier in the year I wrote about a lesbian family I had talked to who had one child by a known donor and another via a clinic with an identifiable (to the child at 18) donor. The agreement with the known donor, a gay friend of one of the women, was that he would be a distant ‘uncle’ figure. However, both he and the women concerned were completely unprepared for the torrent of emotions around the birth of the child and the donor has been an unpredictable and in many ways intrusive presence in all their lives ever since. The problem seems to be the donor’s emotional immaturity and his difficulty in understanding the perspective of the child or his mothers. The focus is on his needs rather than those of his son…which the child undoubtedly is. Last week I had a conversation with another lesbian mother who is in a similar predicament. Her donor agreed to be available to the child created with the help of his sperm when the child was 18. The child is now two and the donor, having had a lot of things go wrong in his life, now wants a ‘photo of the child. All communication with him indicates that it is his needs that are dominant, not those of the child.
In The Times on August 11th Rachel Carlyle wrote about some of the many arrangements that seem to constitute ‘parenting lite’ for men. There are clearly some success stories but these seem to involve donors and recipients who have known each other for a long time so there is a shared history and good basis for negotiation about important issues. They also mostly seemed to involve lesbian couples with heterosexual donors. Things can be more difficult where the mother is a single woman. The article quotes lawyer Patrick D’Alton Harrison who runs the introduction site, Pollen Tree. “…many single women on the site want a kind of uncle figure in the background, but it can get complicated when a child is born. The man suddenly thinks, ‘Hang on, I quite like the idea of being a dad.’ Quite often they didn’t expect to have these feelings and it’s a bit of a shock. Later, it can be the child who decides they want to see their dad more than every other week.”
And that’s the nub isn’t it. What do the children make of these arrangements? Of course young children are very accepting of any family set-up they find themselves in, not knowing any different, but as they grow up what is going to mean most to them is having a dad who is consistent in his contact and able to put their needs first. Although many dads in conventional families fall short of this ideal, there is both an explicit legal and unwritten moral contract in having a child within an emotional relationship that binds father and child together (whether or not they are genetically related). These new arrangements, particularly if they come about through contact sites rather than as a result of long friendship, are often devoid of any real commitment to the child’s long-term welfare. A child knows who their genetic progenitor is, but is this the most important thing? Is he dad? Surely a dad is someone who is in the relationship for the long term and not just the fun bits. How is a child to feel about him or herself if the man they know helped with their creation only wants to see them when it suits him?
Even if an agreement has been written before conception, there is still room for challenge and changes of interpretation. There is an on-going court case happening in Northern Ontario in Canada at the moment that involves the 22 month old child of a lesbian couple and the known sperm donor who originally agreed that he would never contact the child but is now seeking paternity rights. Judgement has been deferred until later in the year but in the meantime the judge has denied access to the child by the donor saying, “It is common sense to delay creating a relationship between a child and a stranger unless there is a guarantee that the relationship will continue”. So consistency of contact is recognised as being important and of course contact now would be likely to prejudice the making of a decision later. As usual, the lawyer Julie Shapiro has interesting things to say about these issues in her bloghttp://julieshapiro.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/who-gets-to-decide-who-sees-a-child-sees/#more-3088
So, known donation comes in many different guises. Clearly the modern family is a different animal to the chocolate box married mum and dad and 2.4 children beloved of advertising executives of another era (did it ever exist?), but children’s needs for love, security and consistency of care don’t change and it is their needs that must lead the way.
This last week I have been updating the Telling and Talking booklet for parents of under seven year olds. It is mostly to include issues that arise when conception has taken place by egg donation abroad. But I end the section on Telling if you have a Known Donor this way. “As in all human relationships, the keys to an on-going rapport between recipients and donor are respect, integrity and a willingness and ability to see situations from the point of view of the others involved. If all the adults involved can manage this, then there is great potential for the child to benefit.”
There is much more to say and I am aware of having left many questions hanging, but for the time being I’ll stick with this.