When is a known donor a parent?

At the risk of repeating myself or being boring I’m going to test your patience with yet another blog about known donors. The impetus this time is an article in the Guardian on Saturday’s Weekend section where Shawn Hitchins recounts his Experience of being a sperm donor for friends.  Shawn is gay and his friends are a lesbian couple. My first shiver of anxiety came with the paragraph, “On the day my friends….., asked if I would donate sperm, I was delighted.  I didn’t think about the reality of what that would entail; I just impulsively said yes.  In fact, I was grateful to be asked.”

I am not saying that arrangements like this can’t work, they clearly can and do and this one seems to be going well…so far (the baby is now 10 months old), but what we now know – and could easily have been predicted – is that unthought through sperm donor arrangements can go horribly wrong.  And one of the things that is rarely taken into account is the changed feelings of all parties once a child is born.  Men, particularly those without children of their own (being raised by them with a female or male partner), are often ambushed by the strength of their own feelings when a child created with their help comes into the world.  Women, gay or straight, may also become more protective of their relationship with a child and begin to see the donor as a threat, no matter how good a friend he was before.  Shawn does not tell us the nature of his arrangement with his friends (frighteningly he does not mention having come to any agreements about his role in this child’s life) or the legal status of the couple which would indicate whether or not he is the legal father, but he does talk about finding himself sobbing on the floor after the baby shower because of being an outsider, “I was physically having a baby, but I wasn’t part of it.”   We are not told who’s name is on the birth certificate.

It would appear that both his friends and Shawn’s parents are supportive of the way this family has come into being and that is something that bodes well for the future.  The Relative Strangers research from Manchester University’s Morgan Centre talks about how parents of gay and lesbian people have often resigned themselves to never becoming grandparents and when this expectation is overturned, they are overjoyed.  This seems to be so in this case and parental support can be a very important feature of any successful family.

Shawn is clearly involved in his baby daughter’s life.  He sees her regularly but says that he is ‘certainly not “Dad”‘.  Whilst this little girl is a baby there is no problem but what happens when she grows up?  What if she wants to call him Dad?  What happens if the mums want to privately educate her but Shawn believes this is an unethical choice?  If the mums and Shawn fall out badly over responsibilities, decision-making and access and it all ends up in court, what is the judge likely to decide?  A judgement made in February this year gave the right to apply for contact to a known donor (through a clinic) who had had been seeing the child he helped to create at the beginning of the child’s life.  It would certainly seem in the case of Shawn and his baby daughter that this child has three parents.  Parents are people who have responsibilities.  Would Shawn be willing to take these on?  It would make him a dad if he did so. He seems to be fulfilling the social and emotional roles already.

What Shawn says is that ‘they’, presumably meaning her mums and him, will ‘always be open about my connection to her. I don’t want a “Darth Vader moment” when she’s older.  It’s important for her to know that she was born in a special way, and that her arrival helped to change ideas of what a family can be.”  Laudable sentiments certainly and let’s hope all does go serenely, with everyone being generous, flexible and altruistic in their approach and with this little girl’s welfare at the heart of everything they do.  But so much better to have done a LOT of talking things through beforehand and put in place at least an outline agreement of roles and responsibilities that could be re-visited as times change.  It could save so much heartache for all concerned later on.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/17/experience-sperm-donor

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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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13 Responses to When is a known donor a parent?

  1. Hey Olivia, thank you for your reflections on the Guardian piece. If you’d like more backstory on the elements the Guardian piece left out, please feel free to contact me. info@shawnhitchins.com

  2. Hey Olivia, tanks for your response to the Guardian piece. There are many holes left in the story – it is an experience piece – and if you want to talk further about my involvement or my thoughts let me know. info@shawnhitchins.com

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

    “(frighteningly he does not mention having come to any agreements about his role in this child’s life) or the legal status of the couple which would indicate whether or not he is the legal father”

    Olivia, do you know what the laws are in the UK about known donors who donate privately (not through a clinic or a doctor)?

    I suspect that the legal aspects of this are murky since, as you too noticed, there was no mention of the legal status. Perhaps that is why he contradicts himself. He was obviously profoundly impacted by his fatherhood experience but yet later says he feels no paternal connection. I wonder if there were legal agreements made prior to conception (confirming that he was not a legal parent) if he would be able to admit to himself and publicly that indeed he does feel a paternal connection to his child. Maybe then could feel comfortable stating that he is her father, while playing a loving, meaningful role in her life because all parties fully understand that he not her legal parent. Reducing any conflicts. It’s still complicated but that sounds like a much healthier way to approach this for everyone involved.

    • oliviasview says:

      I do know about the UK laws and will give an outline below, but I am now understanding that Shawn is Canadian, so if his arrangement took place in Canada then anything I say is not applicable.
      The status of a donor who donates outside of the licensed clinic system in the UK depends on the legal status of the recipient(s). In the case of a lesbian couple, if they are in a civil partnership then both their names can be entered on the birth certificate, they are both legal parents and the donor is not the legal father. If they have not entered into this state then the donor is a legal father. However, if the donor has had quite a lot of contact with a child from birth but his access is then restricted by the women involved, he can apply for regular contact. He won’t necessarily be granted this – it depends on circumstances in each individual case – but his application will be considered. This would NOT happen in the case of a known donor who had not had contact with the child.

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

    Here in the US the laws are not uniform. For example, In one recent case a lesbian couple found a sperm donor on an internet site called Craigslist. He signed a form that he thought was legally binding absolving him of legal parenthood and responsibility but it turns out that the state that the intended parents live in (Kansas) have a law that says a father can only be absolved of financial responsibility towards any genetic children if the artificial insemination was performed by a licensed physician. The state of Kansas is suing the father for child support because the intended parents separated and applied for welfare (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/10/17692042-kansas-snubs-lesbian-co-parent-in-craigslist-sperm-donor-case-attorneys-say?lite) This is tricky because the emotional side wants to agree with the intended arrangement but the state (and the taxpayers) have an interest in whether these kinds of agreements should be upheld because the state and taxpayers are left footing the bill if things fall apart. Although I do not think clinics or doctors check personal finances (ability to support and care for children conceived from these practices) either.

  5. Kriss Fearon says:

    Just got round to reading this now. Have to say, it is a bit disturbing. He sounds very emotional and connected, which is very touching except this isn’t his chance to be a dad, that’s not what his friends went into this for – he’s still not a father in the way he seems to want to be.I think he may struggle with this as the child grows older. Like you I worry about this situation turning into another very messy court case that makes everyone concerned completely miserable. Let’s hope not.

    • marilynn says:

      I would like to put a positive spin on your paragraph and tell me what you think.

      Isn’t it wonderful when people who have offspring and were ambivalent about it at first suddenly realize the magnitude of what they’ve done and realize that they are suppose to take an active positive roll in helping to raise and care for the people they created? I mean better late than never right? We discourage people from reproducing irresponsibly with people they don’t know, don’t love, before they are ready to settle down and raise children and be responsible loving parents. We want people to take it very seriously when they put a hungry little mouth to feed on this planet that is inexorably connected to them and to their family for all eternity. The world is sadly filled with ambivalent neglectful selfish people who have offspring and don’t give a hot god damn what happens to them and this is a tragic thing and nobody can argue that its sad when people with offspring don’t care about them or don’t want to be part of their lives. It’s just sad there is no two ways about it. So from the perspective of the offspring of a previously ambivalent and neglectful person to suddenly be regarded as the important valuable person you are and to suddenly be on the receiving end of the kind of love and attention that every person born deserves from the individuals who created them, its hardly disturbing at all. I’d say it’s joyous and in fact it is justice for their offspring who has a chance at receiving the love and attention they deserve from both the individuals who created them. What possible reason would anyone have for wanting to prevent a person from taking full responsibility for their reproductive actions and behaving responsibly and lovingly toward their offspring?

      Are we looking at a child as a prize or a gift or something that people earn and get to keep when they are good?? How unfair to the person who should always have the right to receive the love care and support of their own parents who created them. Here they have a chance not to be shunned by their relatives, to be included and loved and valued and part of their very own family on both sides, not just one side + a step family turned legal family. Why should they have to loose their family to gain the family of their mother’s spouse? Can’t they have both what is wrong with step families? Other people do just fine with step families and the children don’t have to suffer the permanent loss of their own family to gain a step family its a far better solution for people who want to raise another person’s child. Leave them as the parent of their child and add yourself to the mix and nobody looses anything and all the families stay intact and even grow.

      I’m going to say that I hope this does go to court because all the people I know whose parents fought hard in court for their right to be together as family did so much for the self esteem of the person being fought for. It makes them feel really important and close to the parent who is being shut out because they are not trying to exclude the other people they are just trying to collaborate and cooperate. The people who try to shut a parent out and thwart their efforts to do right by their offspring end up being resented bitterly for being so selfish and unwilling to cooperate and behave like adults with offspring are suppose to cooperate. Parents are not suppose to be able to buy one another’s interest out and block one another from being an active participant in the life of the child they created together.

      I think it is wonderful that this man is overflowing with emotion for his child and he should stop at nothing to gain full legal recognition of her as his child and behave like the father he is and include her in his family full force. Forget whatever stupid contract he signed because it was a foolish selfish neglectful thing for him to do and he has realized that people with offspring have to answer to a higher standard than that because someday there will be a 30 year old person with an inferiority complex wondering why one parent wanted to keep them so badly and the other was willing to let them go so easily and just check in every now and again. Why count with one and not the other. Good for him. I hope he gets the mother of his child to collaborate for the benefit of their kid because it is a very joyous thing. That mother has NO IDEA how many women would love to have made a baby with a man who gives a damn about his child and wants to be there. It’s a blessing to make a child with a person who has love and compassion wake up lady and screw whatever contract you signed think about the kid, not yourself.

      Kriss Fearon says:
      August 21, 2013 at 4:32 pm
      “Just got round to reading this now. Have to say, it is a bit disturbing. He sounds very emotional and connected, which is very touching except this isn’t his chance to be a dad, that’s not what his friends went into this for – he’s still not a father in the way he seems to want to be.I think he may struggle with this as the child grows older. Like you I worry about this situation turning into another very messy court case that makes everyone concerned completely miserable. Let’s hope not.”

      • Kriss Fearon says:

        What possible reason would anyone have for wanting to prevent a person from taking full responsibility for their reproductive actions and behaving responsibly and lovingly toward their offspring?

        If you’re going to intentionally create a child with someone, think about it first. The point about donation is intentionality – you have the time to work through what you’re doing. It’s not like an accidental conception where you work out how you feel and what to do afterwards.

        The legal cases around the care of donor-conceived children can be pretty nasty and not the rosy picture you paint it as where the wronged biological parent has a moment of enlightenment and battles for their rights over the evil recipient parents. The kids see the distress, fear and pain of the resident parent and sometimes blame the donor for dragging the family through court instead of leaving them alone. They can end up as traumatised as any child going through a bad divorce. Like these ones for example.

        http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2006/2.html

        http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2011/2455.html

        Even the idea that men only wake up to what having a child means once the child is born is a commonplace cultural narrative, often used to comfort women when their partner isn’t happy that she’s pregnant. It is very touching that he is so connected but that’s also precisely how some of these legal cases start – people don’t feel how they thought they would, the person who had planned to be a donor realises they want to be a parent, the people who thought they were having a donor-conceived child are then put in the position of becoming co-parents… some people will deal with that but many will feel betrayed and encroached on.

        Despite this, I really hope things work out well for them all.

  6. marilynn says:

    Thank you for responding. Well I agree people don’t always feel the way they thought they would which is why contracts for service are suppose to have an exit clause where either party has the right to change their mind and get out of the contract with some penalty or damages to deal with. The right to change our minds and go back on a promise is freedom in a nutshell. Courts almost never require specific performance but will award damages. Sales contracts for things are different of course the sale of things is final. But a person’s reproductive freedom and parental title over their offspring is not a thing yet it is the meat of the reproductive service contracts that the gamete donor signs or verbally agrees to. The reality is that they did not buy his offspring from him nor did they purchase his parental obligations and they did not buy his the right to change his mind about reproducing with the woman he handed his sperm to. What is it exactly that they think they bought from him and now own? Can we sell our other rights? The right to vote? Can we sell off our other kinship titles? Can someone purchase our granddaughter kinship title and just become grandchild to one of our grandparents? Can we sell other things intrinsic to our existence and identity like our gender or our age? What all do people think they are buying when they pay for a vial of semen or a cup of eggs? Do they think that they are suddenly their own eggs and sperm just the same as had their body generated them themselves? Because they are not theirs even though they bought them. That is the thing about humans and their parts you can’t really buy them and have them become yours like a house or a car. It will never be her sperm and the child will never be her daughter no matter what the law ends up writing down or how they end up living out their lives because reality does not care what we intend or whats best for whom, it just is what it is. That being the case its far better to have people with offspring become interested in them rather than loose interest in them. So I think everyone who cares about the child ought to be thrilled.

    • Kriss Fearon says:

      I think the whole issue of buying or selling is a bit of a red herring. There are places where donation isn’t paid – in the UK it is expenses only and there’s EU legislation in place to prevent people selling body parts across Europe. That is nothing to do with the genetic connection and what it might mean to people.

      I mean, your argument is that the role of father or mother (genetically) is inalienable right, no matter what the circumstances. So whether gametes are bought or freely given, that’s irrelevant to whether people are ‘really’ parents or not.

      We differ greatly on our approach to parenthood. DC parents are well aware they lack a genetic link with their child which is one of the reasons they look to other things to value about their relationship. I don’t think the social parent of any child is ‘never’ their parent and approach demeans the genuine loving relationship between them – donor-conceived, adopted and fostered children *do* refer to their dc, adoptive or foster parents as their ‘real’ parents. You can’t just dismiss that because it doesn’t fit with ideas of genetic priority.

      I don’t think anyone owns children.

    • Kriss Fearon says:

      And just coming back to this again – I am busy so I ought to be doing other stuff – it strikes me that the main problem I have with this attitude is that it seems to justify some of the truly horrible ways that non-bio children are treated by some parents and the wider family.

      If the genetic relationship is the true one, if social parenting doesn’t really matter, then it is OK for adopted children, half-siblings, stepchildren, foster kids and dc children to be treated differently, treated as if they don’t belong in the family, because that is a mere social relationship and you shouldn’t pretend to be a parent or pretend that you can fill the role of their bio parent. It reminds me of that story in Lethal secrets about the DI children who were left out of their grandad’s will (read out publicly before the family) because they weren’t genetically part of the family. Lucky they knew about their conception story. And that kind of thing is OK?

      Regardless of the rights and wrongs of donor conception, some children will not be brought up with their bio family or live with both their bio parents. No child has a choice about the circumstances they are born into or grow up in, that’s all about the choices of the adults involved. They should never be made to feel like they don’t really belong in the only family they can belong to.

      • marilynn says:

        Oh you are so missing my point. In order for there to be adoptive parents there first have to be parents failing to meet their obligations to the offspring they created right? There has to be an absent underperforming parent who is not or should not be in the picture in order for other people to step in and assume those responsibilities on behalf of the absent parent. It is no different with donor offspring, at least one of their parents is not raising them and that allowed another person the opportunity to step in and take over. Their love is real their bond is real and they are very real adoptive parents. The child is their very real adopted child who is their responsibility because they adopted them. The abandoning parent who is merely negligent is more ethical than one who thought of his own offspring as a product to give as a gift or trade or sell. It is far more reasonable that someone attempt to meet their responsibilities and be a miserable failure at it than to plan not to meet those obligations in order to give a person the gift of a child as if their child was property to be disposed of or kept at their whim.

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

    A new story submitted to the Anonymous Us Project by a regretful egg “donor” titled “Egg Donor Regret, and what I didn’t know at the time”:

    “Now that my husband and I have our own child, I also regret my donations because I have forced my daughter to have half-siblings that she will never meet or know. When doing the donations, I never thought about this part, about how I would explain my donations to any future children I might have. I just didn’t think about it. I was living in the excitement of the “now” and the flurry of shots and Dr. appointments and of feeling significant. I didn’t fully think of the long-term complications this would cause. ”

    Read the full story here: http://www.anonymousus.org/stories/index.php?cid=3
    (My note: It is interesting that she feels able to give voice to the concerns of “her daughter” over siblings she will never meet or know, but not to her other genetic children’s possible sense of loss not only of knowing and having a meaningful relationship with their half siblings but also their genetic mother, maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, ancestry and heritage.)

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