Do you have any ‘wayward relations?’

I think many of us might be able to name in our extended families some people whom we might call ‘wayward relations’ but this vaguely derogatory term (in English anyway) has been used by German anthropologist Maren Klotz specifically to refer to “genetic relatives, often officially unintended, who do not correspond to established kinship roles.”  In other words people connected genetically via gamete donation.

Maren’s paper, ‘Wayward Relations: Novel searches of the Donor-Conceived for Genetic Kinship is worth reading, partly because anthropology looks at donor conception through a slightly different lens to other academic disciplines and partly because her focus is on how older donor conceived people are using sites like 23andme and Family Tree DNA to make genetic links.  This is a very modern way of diverting what were intended largely as ‘hobby genealogy’ sites that have ended up contributing to the subversion of the intentions of large parts of the fertility industry.  As Klotz says, the use of this technology could be seen as part of a larger pattern of geneticisation of relationships, but she identifies it more as a highly contemporary way of asserting agency in a world characterised by tensions over knowledge acquisition.  It “challenges the gatekeeper status of clinicians and regulators over genetic knowledge, official regimes of anonymous gamete donation and – in a wider sense -privacy.”

Klotz’s ‘fieldwork’ (this is what anthropologists do) contacts were mostly adults conceived through donated sperm who had found out about their conception only in their late twenties, accidentally or in situations of family conflict or even losses of family members. As she acknowledges, such conflictive revelations seem quite typical of families-by-donation over thirty years ago before less secretive donation practices became supported by interest groups and regulation in Euro-America.  In many cases donor conceived people felt betrayed by their parents and this led to estrangement, but not inevitably.  For some, day to day relationships were able to continue as normal whilst also acknowledging the shock and disruption that the new knowledge had caused.  For others, particularly where there was a family history of divorce and difficult relationships, people expressed the desire that new ‘wayward relationships’ would prove to be more durable, whilst at the same time acknowledging that these were unlikely to come about simply because of a genetic match.  There would have to be an investment of time and emotional energy as well.

Searching for pieces of genetic kinship knowledge and connecting with other people undertaking the same task, was described as comforting and reassuring, although it was acknowledged that making actual genetic contacts was sometimes disappointing.  Several of the connections made by Klotz’s participants had turned into what she calls ‘latent’ relationships with on and off contact.

Although lack of personal medical history was often stated in a first interview as being very painful and one of the main reasons for searching, Klotz found that at subsequent interviews, medical questions were rarely raised.  Participants were more interested in talking about the outrage of being denied information, the betrayal of their parents and the possibility of discovering enriching relationships.  The search itself seemed to take on a life of it’s own, bringing comfort in being able to re-assert a sense of agency in the face of withholding clinics and institutions and a strong sense of purpose in the face of being denied information about something that remains central in Euro-American culture – biological relatedness and parentage.  Klotz notes the “joy and sense of empowerment” her informants found when they were able to “divert authoritative regimes of ‘kinship knowledge management’ through private genetic testing, through legal action ,through internet based detective work or through networking with other concerned individuals world wide.”

In an age where demands for transparency, access to knowledge and it’s management clamour for space, those in the virtually unique position of being denied information about their genetic heritage by convention, law or regulation, are asserting their agency by doing everything they can to subvert authority.  Klotz sees this seeking for ‘wayward relations’ not as wanting to displace social means of relating but as complementary to it, although she acknowledges that in a wider sense, “wayward relations appear to be a reaction to late-modern experiences of fragmentation and individualisation, as some researchers suspect of ancestry research in general.”  This is very much in keeping with the thinking of Australian philosopher Rhys Price-Robertson quoted by me in November last year https://oliviasview.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/genes-identity-and-meaning-in-donor-conception/

It seems that the search itself, the information gained (if any) and the contacts made with others engaged in the same task might, for some people, be enough in themselves.  That although they have the means to make connections, they may choose not to do so.  They have asserted their agency and challenged authority and that is enough for them.  Having the resources and means of the internet at their disposal means that taking up the search again in the future, should they choose to do so, would be possible.  And that must be the point in the end mustn’t it.  If they choose to do so.  If something has been held a secret for so long and then information relating to that secret is found to be locked away or already destroyed, then that information, in and of itself, becomes something you feel you must have.  It has a lure that easily available information completely lacks.  Which leads me to wonder how differently, or not, the new generation of donor conceived people are likely to view their ‘wayward relations’.  If parents have been open from the beginning and donors are identifiable from when the young person turns 18, will this group of DC adults feel the same need as their earlier counterparts to scour the internet and send saliva swabs to 23andme?  I don’t know, but look forward to next few years with great interest.

Maren Klotz (2016) Wayward Relations: Novel Searches of the Donor-Conceived for Genetic Kinship, Medical Anthropology, 35:1, 45-57, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2015.1012615 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01459740.2015.1012615

 

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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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2 Responses to Do you have any ‘wayward relations?’

  1. marilynn says:

    “If something has been held a secret for so long and then information relating to that secret is found to be locked away or already destroyed, then that information, in and of itself, becomes something you feel you must have. It has a lure that easily available information completely lacks.”

    This is true

    “Which leads me to wonder how differently, or not, the new generation of donor conceived people are likely to view their ‘wayward relations’. If parents have been open from the beginning and donors are identifiable from when the young person turns 18, will this group of DC adults feel the same need as their earlier counterparts to scour the internet and send saliva swabs to 23andme? I don’t know, but look forward to next few years with great interest.”

    In response to whether being told early quells the interest in making contact – absolutely not. Searches are undertaken as soon as they can get alone-time son a computer at 10, 11, 12 years old they begin searching regardless of how happily married their parent may be and how comfortable their home life is, information is being withheld during their youth and they want it and also they do want to forge relationships with their family that really is the bottom line if a person is inclined to search at all. They approach the search with no expectation greater than simply obtaining the concealed information and making their presence known to their family members but the hope is that their family will want to know them and maintain contact. Of all the donor offspring I know who have undertaken a search effort just a hand full were told in their teens or later. Being told early just means an earlier search for their family – ALWAYS behind the backs of their rearing families. Not one have I ever known to who told of their search until AFTER contact was made and deeply established especially those that are under 18.

    Getting the contact information at 18 is great but that does not do them any good before they are 18 and it won’t identify the other children their parent is not raising nor does it identify the children that parent is raising or all of the other members of their family who would normally kinow about the existence of their relative’s child had they been named on their birth record as parent and raised them. Having their parents identity can help make the search and contact with those relatives easier for sure but it is still part of the broader issue of information withheld and not easy to get such that it fits within your paradigm of being accessible and therefore not as interesting.

    People who know their relatives were gamete donors are out there looking for their children on FTDNA and 23 and me and so are Donors who suspect they might be parents and they are not waiting 18 years to submit samples and neither are their children. Donor offspring are submittitang samples to FTDNA and 23 and me earlier than 18 for sure in order to get information and make contact and forge relationships earlier. I do think your right about accessible information being less tantalizing and that the mere availability of information can be sufficient such that a person might not undertake a search effort. But a donors offspring would have to have rights identical to that of the population whose parents were not gamete donors in order to have the same access to information and contact with their relatives as the rest of us do before you get to that point where donor offspring would consider the information to be so accessible that they can take it or leave it.

    • oliviasview says:

      I have never seen or suspected more than a glimmer of evidence of children aged 12 and under in the UK searching for information about donors. I have known two girls who at around age 13 or 14 went through a period of being unhappy in their family and trying to search for a donor they thought would be a more satisfactory parent for them. Both are now older teenagers and very comfortable in their skins. Neither found information. This sort of dissatisfaction and unhappiness is pretty normal for this age group. I think most DC Network families would know (from Internet search history if nothing else) that their child was doing this kind of searching, and if they are I think it is out of curiosity not because they are feeling a loss of ‘family’.

      Marilynn: I have not felt the need to publish your two further communications as they added nothing of general interest.

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