Genes and relationships: the new nature nurture debate

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a bit of a Guardian groupie so very exciting to have spent time this weekend inside the paper’s splendid new wavy-edged headquarters in London’s refurbished Kings Cross district.  My Masterclass in DSLR photography for beginners took us to the picturesque Regents Canal that runs alongside the Kings Place building to practise our ISO and f stop technique, but most exciting was having the theory take place on the huge horseshoe of yellow/lime green sofa that dominates the daily morning conference room of the paper.

As it happens, Saturday’s Guardian had two items of interest with regard to donor conception.    The first, in a column that brings us news items from the same day but in years past, is a report of a court case that took place on 11th January 1958.  The headline was ‘Artificial insemination not adultery’.  A woman had given birth to a child a year and three months since leaving her husband.  Her husband, almost certainly as part of divorce proceedings, was attempting to sue for adultery, but the defence was that as artificial insemination by a donor and not sexual intercourse had brought about the conception, then adultery could not have taken place.  Lord Wheatley at the Court of Session, Edinburgh said, “Just as artificial insemination extracts procreation entirely from the nexus of human relationship in or outside of marriage, so does the extraction of the nexus of human relationship from the act of procreation remove artificial insemination from the classification of sexual intercourse.  If my views be correct, then it follows logically that artificial insemination by donor without the consent of the husband is not adultery as the law interprets that term.”

This judgement of course took place in the 1950s when AID was considered an abhorrent and potentially illegal practice.  It is interesting that even today some women in heterosexual couples feel as if they are committing adultery when having donor insemination, but this is because of their sense of disloyalty to (infertile) man they love dearly, not because they are seeking to undermine or bypass the relationship they have with their partner in any way.  It is in fact usually the strength of the relationship – the desperate wish to become parents together and be able to raise a child or children within a loving family – that leads to the decision to use donor conception to create that family.  Loving relationships are indeed central not only to the creation of donor conception families but to on-going definitions of who constitutes a mother or a father and potentially extended family as well.  Some commentators to this blog would have us believe that it is the people who provide the genetic material to create another human being who must be regarded as the parents and that ‘donors’ who provide sperm or eggs without taking responsibility for the resulting offspring are giving away or abandoning their children.  But human beings are relational creatures.  We form bonds with those who care for us, not those who are genetically related to us.  Genes provide raw material and should not be discounted.  Those people who provide the raw materials for conception deserve our acknowledgement, recognition and profound thanks but without a social and emotional relationship to the children born they cannot be regarded as parents.  In most cases they would not want to be regarded as a parent either.  However, if donors and offspring or half-siblings become known to each other then there is the potential for all sorts of relationships to develop but I would suggest that if the primary caring relationship of raising parent and child has been one that has fulfilled the emotional needs of all parties, then that is unlikely to change.

It is interesting that in the film Delivery Man that Walter and I went to see last Friday, the parents of the supposed 142 offspring who were taking a class action to discover the identity of their sperm donor, were notable by their complete absence.  For the story to work in an uncomplicated way they needed to be.  But then, none of the offspring depicted seemed to be looking for a ‘father’ – rather they were looking for insights into themselves as young human beings making their way in the world.  David the donor, played by Vince Vaughan (who spookily is the spitting image of our son Peter), is at first reluctant to admit his role as progenitor of so many people.  It is only as he gets to know some of them that he declares something like, ‘Only I can decide if I am a father’…relationships again.

Despite the need to suspend your disbelief from time to time, allow for poetic licence and take some things with a pinch of salt, the film is worth seeing…which brings me to the second mention in the Guardian of donor conception.  Tim Lott, the novelist who writes the excellent Man About the House column in the Family Section, mentions Delivery Man as being very strong on the mechanics of plot, dialogue and theme and as such, holds the attention of the viewer.  It does just that in a very heartwarming but (mostly) unsentimental way and I commend it to anyone interested in donor conception families and what it means to be conceived this way.

I know this will not be the last word (from anyone) on these issues!  Let the debate continue.

I should point out to anyone who doesn’t know, that Delivery Man is the Hollywood remake of a French-Canadian film called Starbuck, which is the name that David was known by at the clinic he donated at.  The new version is virtually word for word, scene for scene the same as the original.   I reviewed this film last year and you can see what I wrote at the link below.

This very sad personal story and comment on Delivery Man appeared in The Guardian on 16th January.


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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9 Responses to Genes and relationships: the new nature nurture debate

  1. gsmwc02 says:

    Another great piece.

    First I have a question. When a donor agreement is signed don’t both husband and wife sign the agreement along with the donor or is it just the woman who does? If that’s the case then I don’t see how a man could say it was adultery.

    My wife struggled with the idea of having another man’s child. I didn’t have a problem with it though. I looked at it is though she would be carrying the child we would have been the parents of despite my lack of a biological connection to the child. Though our infertility issues went beyond my azoospermia which is why I didn’t want to pursue DI. I didn’t want to see her go through treatments for a chance not a guarantee that we would have a child that wasn’t biologically related to me. It just wasn’t for us though I am still fascinated with the topic.

    • marilynn says:

      Greg though you nailed it – it would be another man’s child. You are dialing into the humanness of the person people refer to as a donor. It would not be any easier for the child to process loosing a bio parent in that manner than loosing a parent and then being adopted. In fact if the child lost their parents and then was adopted at least they are not trying to reconcile why one bio parent would keep them while the other one would not want to keep them. Nor would they be struggling with the seeming acceptance of one fully abandoning as some kind of service to the other parent. It’s a much better position for a non bio or bio parent to be in when they did not actively seek the separation of the child from the absent bio parent or parents.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        No, it wouldn’t be Marilynn. It would have been biologically related to another man but it wouldn’t have been his child. It would have been our child no matter what you or anyone else thought. Anyone who was physically able it have children that would judge us, their opinion would be irrelevant in my world.

  2. oliviasview says:

    Hi Greg, certainly nowadays and for a very long time, partners have had to both sign agreements before donor conception goes ahead, but the court case that I mentioned (and of course the insemination) took place in the 1950s when rules were made up by individual clinics. It may also have been that the woman presented as a single mother as she was separated from her husband, although deliberate single motherhood would have have been very unusual then.
    Your wife is not unusual in having thought she might be having another man’s child. I have to say I never felt that way. I always felt as though the children I carried and gave birth to came out of the love Walter and I have for each other.

  3. marilynn says:

    “No, it wouldn’t be Marilynn. It would have been biologically related to another man but it wouldn’t have been his child. It would have been our child no matter what you or anyone else thought. Anyone who was physically able it have children that would judge us, their opinion would be irrelevant in my world.”

    OK walk me through this a person with offspring is a person who has children. It would be a lie for them to say that they had no children although granted they should clarify that they are not raising some of them if that is the case, but to say that a man with 25 offspring is a man who has no children, has fathered no children, or that he is childless would be a false statement.

    When people refer to other people’s offspring as “their child”, what do they mean by that? Cause when a person say’s “my arm”, “my mess”, “my child” they mean that they caused the child it is an extension of their body they are responsible for the child’s existence. That is as opposed to saying “my neighbor’s child or my cousin’s kid or my foster kid. For clarity sake it’s better not to use terms that would imply that a person caused a kid to exist if they did not because what that does is it erases or leaves no room for the person that acutally caused the kid to exist. And then isn’t the kid their kid? Like their arm is their arm or their work is their work? They are not taking credit for raising their kid by saying “my kid”

    There is just so much misleading language in this business it’s important to try and dig out anything unclear I’m sorry if it seems like hair splitting, it’s just those little linguistic tricks that make telling the truth kind of joke if all the words used lead the kid and others right back to the thing that is not true that they wish was true so they’ll talk and act like their preferred scenario is true even after “telling the truth”

  4. oliviasview says:

    ‘my child’…the child I have a close and intimate relationship with. The child I am responsible for. Not (necessarily) the child I am genetically connected to. Relationships not genetics.

    • gsmwc02 says:

      I agree Olivia. I don’t think there is any implication with regards to whether they conceived the child. If you are someone who believes that parenting a child has everything to do with genetics, then I can understand the confusion. But most people don’t think that way. Although if someone was raised and exposed to things growing up that told them genetics are what makes a parent, I’d at least understand where they came from.

      • marilynn says:

        OK but Greg if your wife wanted to “have a child” this way, she would not need your agreement to the same degree as she would if she were having a child with you proper. Right? I mean she would need your consent she could not just take your sperm from the waste basket and get herself pregnant without having violated your personal freedom of choice. Ultimately if you got her pregnant through an act of theft and breach of trust you would still be the father but your consent is supposed to be required. She would not need your consent in order to get herself pregnant by some other man. Even if you are married. She’d need his consent to get her pregnant because he is the other person besides her who wind’s up with offspring, they would have offspring together so she needs his consent to get her pregnant not yours. She gets that aparent guarantee of consent from a clinic that telss her yeah he signed an agreement consenting to get you pregnant although she has no proof of consent the way a woman does when she is face to face having sex with a guy not wearing a condom. In any event she and he are the ones who consent to have offspring. What you’d be agreeing to do is raise her child with her. If she divorced you mid pregnancy you could not claim that the child she gave birth to was your child without specific cooperation from her. Much different than if the child were actually your offspring to where it would not matter if she wanted you out of her life and the kid’s life she would not be able to object and win because you would be the kid’s actual father it is not dependent on her willingness to cooperate. So the whole “our child” statement can be pretty deceptive when we include situations like fatherhood granted at the discretion of the mother.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        If I weren’t infertile it’s unknown of whether my wife and I would have been able to conceive a child together. So everything your saying is not applicable to us. But if her situation were different and we used DI, the child would be our child. I would get the full fatherhood experience minus the child looking like me or sharing any DNA. Which at the end of the day only means so much.

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