Genes, identity and meaning in donor conception

I’ve said it here before and I’ll say it again, genetic connections matter hugely and they don’t matter at all.  This apparent paradox is something that every parent by donor conception needs to be able to manage in order to be able to raise children who are appropriately emotionally attached to them but are also free to be able to explore their unknown genetic side, if it is important to them, without fear that parents will be upset.   Those of us who have worked with DC Network for a long time have come to understand the fundamental truth of this paradox over the years simply from our own experiences and observations of many, many donor conception families.  It was, therefore, good to come across an article entitled Ancestry, Identity and Meaning: The importance of biological ties in contemporary society by Rhys Price-Robertson which examines philosophical perspectives on the importance (or not) of biological links and offers a sophisticated and nuanced response to two diametrically opposed positions.  This article can be found in a series of essays from the Australian Institute of Family Studies

Price-Robertson’s first paragraph sets out some important questions,  “Biological ties are important to people; there is no doubting that.  But exactly why they are important is increasingly relevant at a time when so much about the family exists in flux-the shapes of families are shifting, as are the technologies used to assist in creating them.  Beneath many of the current debates over family structure or assisted reproductive technologies (eg. those concerned with adoption, surrogacy, donor insemination and gay and lesbian parented families) lay some fundamental moral questions.  Is it important to know one’s biological parents?  Are biological parent-child relationships different, in any important moral sense, to non-biological parent-child relationships?  What value should be attributed to biological ties?”   He continues by looking at two philosophical theorists who take opposing views to each other.  One the one hand there is Velleman who has argued that “an ongoing connection with biological parents is so significant in forming open’s self-knowledge and identity that it is morally wrong to deprive someone of this” and on the other there is Haslanger who agrees that “biological relationships play a valuable role in healthy identity formation, but only because the current cultural context is strongly ‘bionormative’.”   She believes that the way forward “lies not in shaping moral understandings to fit with a bionormative cultural context, but rather in challenging bionormativity.”   

Inevitably Velleman’s position tends to lead to a rather conservative view of the family and by extension that it is morally wrong to bring a child into the world knowing that they will be denied knowledge of one or both biological procreators.  In contrast Haslanger welcomes the new ideologies of the family and relationships, stating that people certainly do need others to help with self-knowledge and identity formation but that these people need not be those who are biologically related; they can be friends, colleagues or indeed public figures.  Price-Robertson’s position is that each of these perspectives is too polarised and fails to take account of the secular context in which a contemporary search for narrative life stories and meaning take place.  He argues that in post-traditional societies there is a loss of meaningful grand narratives and that for many the cult of the body and the individual have taken their place, science having failed to provide the rich stories and framework of religion, myth and spirituality.  One result of the body becoming a more central focus of identity is that personal creation myths have taken on a broader meaning-provided role in modern life and a pre-occupation with heredity and genealogy is an example of this.  Price-Robertson quotes Finkler who, he says,  convincingly argues that “the ideology of genetic inheritance promises contemporary humans immortality within the flux of the post-modern world as the individual exists in a transient world but is fastened biologically to the past and the future.”  However, he notes that people who put a lot of effort into searching for ancestors are rarely just looking for genetic information but rather they are looking for stories and in the case of donor conceived people, to place themselves somehow in the story of how their bio father or mother made their reproductive decisions.

I cannot hope to do justice to the many fascinating and often complex (but readable) arguments and reflections contained in this article and would not want to as it is such a worthwhile read in the original but I will spend a few moments with Price-Robertson’s conclusions.

In sum, he says, “I agree with Velleman that knowing one’s family history provides a broad context ‘in which large stretches of my own life can take on meaning in relation to the story of my ancestors.’  However, whilst Velleman saw this as being indicative of the inherent importance of biological ties, I argue it is simply the current manifestation of a deeper human propensity to position one’s own life story within a broader, meaning-based narrative” … “In the absence of meaning-providing grand narratives (and in the presence of secularism, scientism and consumerism) people’s biological history and ancestry have become common ways for them to attempt to position their own lives within a broader context.”

Velleman’s conservative approach risks making ‘natural’ what are actually socially constructed phenomena but Haslinger’s position of seeing biological ties as simply socially constructed misses a much more complex picture.  Both authors underestimate the influence of the modern cultural context which fails to provide a satisfactory framework within which it is easy to construct identity and tends to trivialise the great importance that many attribute to biological connections.

Essentially Price-Robertson’s argument seems to me to be that the importance and meaning of biological ties have to be seen within a wider cultural and social context and that insistence on polarised positions on almost anything, and perhaps particularly the nature/nurture debate are unhelpful and doomed to failure.  Individuals will interpret the meaning of these ties according to their individual psychology and experiences within their family (and I hope to write more about this soon) but always within the context of the meanings placed on biology by the culture in which they are living and the options they feel are available for identity construction.

As I said at the beginning, genes are both very important and not important at all.

I would love to hear other responses to Price-Robertson’s essay which seems to me to make an important contribution to thinking about the meaning of donor conception for individuals and for families.


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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