Hot weather and compelling tennis have been keeping me away from the computer, but in the meantime I have been reading What Kinship is…And is Not by University of Chicago Emeritus Professor Marshall Sahlins. It is a very short book but heavy going for someone who is not an anthropologist by training, each academic discipline having it’s own impenetrable terminology. Easier to read is a commentary on the book by Jeanette Edwards from the University of Manchester who takes Sahlins basic precept that kin are people “who participate in each other’s lives…belong to one another…are parts of one another…partake of each other’s sufferings and joys and feel the effects of each other’s acts” and uses it as a lens to look at the modern relational phenomenon of donor siblings. Kinship may include a genealogical connection and often does, but Sahlins and Edwards are clear that this is not a necessary prerequisite for inclusion of people in a kin network. Sahlins writes about how parents are kin prior to the conception and birth of their children. This is because they fulfil the conditions of kinship (above) and as such I can only assume that a gamete donor who is unknown to the couple or individual concerned, would not be kin. A known donor might or might not be. So what to make of half-siblings (known affectionately as ‘diblings’ to some), many of whom may never meet in person but who have connected via registries (notably the Donor Sibling Registry DSR in the States) and talk together on Skype or social media. From the small amount of research that has been done on families where donor sibling links have been made, it is clear that for most the conditions of kinship are present. Half-sibs Ellie and Helen, quoted by me in previous blogs, are quite clear that they are sisters, deeply involved in each other’s lives. Freeman et al (2009) cites one mother as saying of her child’s donor siblings, “I felt very maternal toward my son’s brother and sister….What really surprised me was just how strongly I felt towards them. It changed my concept of ‘family.’ I know that genetically, I have no relationship to any of them but they are my family, they are part of me. They just are!!….If they ever needed anything, I’d do whatever I could for them….They mean the world to me.” And yet, as Edwards says, “This is a kinship link that is both involuntary (given through the circumstances of one’s conception) and entirely voluntary and which may or may not stand the test of time.” It is the knowing of the genetic connection that sparks the interest and effort entailed in making the links. Of course for many families, particularly heterosexual couples, knowing of the presence or likely existence of half-siblings somewhere is a worrying prospect. Kinship with half-sibs and their families is the last thing on their minds. The imagined connection is one they feel threatens the integrity of their family. This is often true even for parents who are open with their children and others about their use of a donor for family creation. Some donor conceived young adults known to me have not taken the opportunity to sign up to Donor Sibling Link at the HFEA because they feel they are unlikely to have anything in common with half-sibs raised in different families. They feel no sense of kin with them. An interesting aspect of Edwards commentary is her reference to an observation made about a study of 492 donor conceived people in the US. To quote “…unlike siblings who grow up together, these siblings are ‘perfect’ – related to them (and not to their parents) and no immediate threat to parental love, resources or time. Therefore, they are imagined – or already known as – ‘cool’, ‘fun’, ‘neat’; they are people who understand them (Nelson et al in press 2013) This being in direct contrast to sibs raised together who are often rivalrous and quarrelsome. Being neither an anthropologist nor a psychologist I have no explanation for the differences between those who seem fascinated by the idea of half-sibs and those who are not. But it does seem clear that whilst genetic links do spark interest and curiosity in some, it is not inevitable that shared genealogy creates kinship. Look at Phoebe in The Archers (sorry those of you who don’t listen or are outside the UK). Her genetic mother is an embarrassment who fails to tune in to her teenage daughter whilst the mother who raised her is warm and empathetic. And what are we to make of Long Lost Family, the tear-jerker of a TV programme where (mostly adopted) people are helped to connect with birth family members? Could it be that it is, as Edwards says, the knowing about a genetic link or a person that makes the longing to be re-united so great. Is it all just the stories we tell ourselves or is blood really thicker than water? I’d love to hear what you think.
Jeanette Edwards commentary can be seen here: http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau3.2.018/764