The question in this title was at the heart of a debate that took place in London, care of Progress Educational Trust, on Monday this week. The UK’s Law Commission is currently seeking contributions to it’s consultation on whether or not the system of birth registration should be reformed and PET put on this event, Birth Certificates and Assisted Reproduction: Setting the Record Straight at very short notice. Given that, an amazing 200 people registered to attend. It was also interesting to learn from civil servants present that the General Register Office, responsible for the registration of births, death and marriages, are seriously considering the digital upgrading of a system that dates from the 1950s and before.
Julie McCandless from the London School of Economics felt that reform should be wider than just taking into account assisted reproduction. What about those parents in transition from one gender to another and the increasing incidence of co-parenting, where more than two parents are involved in the commitment to raise a child. What is the purpose of birth registration she asked; for what reason is it necessary and for whose benefit do we need it?
Natalie Gamble, solicitor and lesbian mum to two donor conceived children seemed clear that a birth certificate was a piece of paper that documented legal parentage of a child. An adoption certificate showed that legal parentage had been transferred from one (set of) parents to another. She argued, that the ‘natural’ parents, who were not necessarily the biological parents, but those who arranged and intended to become parents, should appear on the certificate, gamete donors not being parents and therefore not having the right to appear. A birth certificate, she went on to say, tells a child that they have a secure identity. There should be space on the certificate to include same sex parents and co-parents, so that it is clear who has legal responsibility for a child.
Natalie then went on to explain her views on changes in the laws around surrogacy, which the Law Commission is also consulting on, but I will not expound these here.
Marilyn Crawshaw, social worker, academic and Chair of the British Association of Social Worker’s working group on assisted reproduction PROGAR, said that birth certificates had only recently shifted from being a record of biological to legal parentage. She supported the United Nations Rights of the Child position to be able to know one’s heritage which she sees as compatible with being raised by legal parents who are not necessarily biologically related. She proposed a form of birth certification for everyone that draws attention to the document being a record of legal parentage but referring those who are interested to seek further possible information about genetic progenitors.
Craig Reisser is a dad by surrogacy and egg donation and spoke from his personal rather than a professional perspective. His definition of a parent is that of a caregiver who has rights and responsibilities in relation to his/her child. He believes that the children have a right to know their full story and he and his partner have gone to great lengths to have an egg donor and surrogate who are both willing to be known to his children. He does not believe that children’s rights trump those of the parent but that a balance must be struck. He also does not believe that the birth certificate is the right place to record ‘other elements’ such as the fact of donor conception/surrogacy or the name of the donor. He went on to say that the birth record was just that, a record of an event and a document that was proof of identity and nationality. It is a matter of public record and available publicly (in the UK) for purposes of population numbers and research, but is also a private family matter. It is up to parents to share the information about donor conception with their children. Donors and surrogates do not intend to be parents and do not wish to appear on the birth certificate.
Kate Litvinczuk is a donor conceived adult who felt it was right that her raising parents should be the ones named on her birth certificate. Her parents did not intend to ‘tell’ her at the beginning – having been advised by their clinic not to do so – but Kate recounted how when she was around three her parents recognised her as an independent person in her own right and felt they could not withhold the information. The whole family are very pleased that they did tell and in fact have been more open than many families, occasionally appearing in the media. Although Kate has the right to put her name on the Donor Sibling Register to be in touch with half-sibs by mutual consent she does not feel the need to at the moment, although she recognises that this is different for other DC adults.
Stephen Snyder, a lawyer from Oregon Reproductive Medicine, seemed to be on the panel, partly as a sponsor of the event, but also to provide a a contrasting American perspective. He is very much against family secrets but believes the primary purpose of the birth certificate is to establish legal parentage, although this could be more than two people and the bureaucracy should allow for that. He explained the American federal system whereby each State has it’s own laws on donor assisted conception. I think he said that he believes that anonymous donors remain in most places in the US because of inheritance laws that might allow offspring to claim on the estate of donors. Perhaps some of my American readers could comment on that.
Each of the above speakers only had seven minutes in which to make their presentation and the rest of the time was spent in debate with questions and comments from the audience.
The whole issue of what happens to those children conceived abroad but born in the UK was raised several times and seen by some as a red herring and others as an enormous challenge to any change in the birth registration system that would enable enable donor conceived people to learn of their beginnings. Any floor participant with a legal background was very clear that the BC is a legal document giving status, identity and nationality to the holder, but two donor conceived adults present were adamant that they had a right to be told early in life and to have information about their donor if they chose to have it. Neither of them had been told until they were much older, they had suffered from this and they believed that marking the birth certificate in some way was the only way to persuade parents to tell. Others felt that pressuring parents was not the right way to go and that there should be campaigns of awareness raising that would educate parents about the need to be open with their children. Kate Linwinczuk felt that using a BC as a tool to give donor conceived people information (if their parents did not do this) was a rather inefficient way to go about it as people don’t usually see their own birth certificate until they are an adult and many people would not bother to follow up a bit of small print that suggested there may be further information available. Others may be unduly worried by this. A representative from the London Egg Bank said that undoubtedly a BC was a legal document but wondered if it had any other responsibilities.
An issue I felt was avoided was that of identity. Several people mentioned the word but it was always in the context of legal identity. Who we feel we are is of course quite different. Personally I feel my own identity is made up of a complex multiplicity of factors…and they increase rather than decrease in shape and size as I get older. Perhaps my genetic identity is part of that – Italian father etc. – but to me it feels like a pretty small component. However, I know that for some donor conceived people – particularly those who were late-told and/or had childhoods marred by difficulties – feel very differently. Their genetic make-up and links to others who share genes feels vital to their sense of self and their need to know their donor is great. This was not explored and I wonder if it had been raised by the donor conceived people present it would have been possible for others present to take seriously…given the general leaning towards identity being seen only as a legal status.
A final topic that came up under several different guises was DNA testing; something that is pulling the carpet from under donor anonymity by providing the means for tracing genetic relatives mostly without their permission and revealing to some unsuspecting amateur genealogists that their genetic connections are not as expected. Why use birth certificates to reveal donor conception when a DNA test will do the job for you?
No conclusions were drawn but I guess that’s what debates are about and PET should be congratulated for arranging the evening. No doubt they will be writing up the event in the weekly on-line Bio-News. Subscribe now for free to be kept up to date with news, research and events around assisted conception and genetics.
Update at 24.10.16 For an official version of the presentations and debates see Daniel Malynn’s account in BioNews this week http://www.bionews.org.uk/page.asp?obj_id=717831&PPID=717694&sid=321
29.10.16 Read also this excellent blog about the same event by Rebecca Steinfeld, The Politics of Birth Certificates http://www.rebeccasteinfeld.com/2016/10/the-politics-of-birth-certificates.html