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. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/16/dad-sperm-donor-lack-identity-delivery-man