What can I say about Guido Pennings and his insistence that there is no evidence that it is better to tell children that they are donor conceived than not. There seems to be a perversity about the man that leads me to want to quote the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland...he only does it to annoy because he knows it teases. Wah, wah, wah.
It is Pennings Commentary in this weeks’ BioNews that has caused such a stir, but his longer original article ‘Disclosure of donor conception, age of disclosure and the well-being of donor offspring’ appeared in the latest edition of Human Reproduction. This professional journal is behind a subscription wall and therefore mainly only available to academics. It was, however, noted with dismay by many of these people and a letter objecting to it’s central premises and arguments and signed by 39 international leaders in the field of donor conception research and community (including at least one donor conceived person) will be printed in the next edition. Pennings knew this and I can’t help feeling that he deliberately sought publicity for his views in the more widely accessible BioNews before this letter was printed.
I have seen the original article and am fascinated that he sets out to find out whether there is evidence to show that disclosure of donor conception is in the best interests of donor offspring, but then completely and without shame immediately dismisses any deontological arguments such as ‘it is wrong to lie’ or ‘the child has a right to know’. These propositions are fundamental to a values based and Human Rights approach that is completely appropriate to enquiry in a field such as this and should always be part of of what informs policy and practice. But no, Pennings wants empirical evidence and will be not be satisfied until he has it. What he does not make clear is that the research evidence concerning the impact of disclosure and age of disclosure on DC people is very limited in terms of numbers and range of participants, numbers of research teams working in this field and methodologies used. There are, to date, no large-scale research studies. Despite this, Pennings, through choosing selected studies, decides that there is sufficient evidence to make claims based upon it. He also of course provides no evidence to show that ‘not-telling’ is in the best interests of children.
The forthcoming letter to Human Reproduction will set out the academic/research arguments against Pennings claims much more clearly than I am able to do. As a mother of DC adults and a counsellor, what I completely fail to understand is why Pennings seems to need to contradict and attempt to undermine what is so obviously good parenting advice, supported by adoption theory, practice and experience and indeed by research on secrets in families. In addition, child development experts have long shown that it is possible to talk about anything to children if the language and concepts used are age appropriate. Keeping secret the fact of a child’s biological origin and allowing them to assume a genetic connection when it is untrue seems to be a very poor basis for the trust, security and warm relationships that should be the basis of good-enough parenting. Keeping secrets as big as this take up emotional energy in the life of a family. When children start to ask, as they all do, about similarities and differences between them and their parents they will notice when the answers are evasive or mum and dad exchange glances and change the subject. A child will know that there is something going on and that it has to do with them. A sensitive child may blame themselves and worry about what it all means. Bizarrely in the Human Reproduction article Pennings seems to suggest that counsellors should perhaps be coaching parents in how to manage their children’s questions when they have decided not to tell. Whilst I deplore any counsellor who feels it is their moral duty to make sure that parents are going to ‘tell’, suggesting that they teach parents to lie is extraordinary.
Not-telling so often comes from a place of shame or fear. Good counselling can help potential and actual parents to explore these feelings sensitively and hopefully begin to understand what being donor conceived might feel like from a child/older offspring’s point of view. It is of course up to parents to make their own decisions after this but it is so very sad to think of a child being brought up by parents who feel shame about the way their child came into the world. It is hard to think that this would not have an impact on family relationships.
Pennings does not accept that children’s needs and rights trump those of parents, whom he believes should be able to make the decision not to ‘tell’ in the same way as they make other decisions in their children’s lives. What he did not acknowledge in either the BioNews piece or in Human Reproduction is the modern impossibility of keeping the secret. DNA testing is changing the donor conception world for ever and everyone using donated gametes to create their family needs to understand this. How very much better that parents should explain genetic origins from a very young age than someone should find out accidentally because they were contacted by a half-sibling or through taking a test for genealogical purposes.
It is unlikely that we will have the kind of empirical evidence that Pennings requires about the value of ‘telling’ for some years yet – we may never have it – but that should not deter all those involved with potential and actual donor conception families from listening to parents, understanding their fears and concerns and gently supporting them in finding ways to ‘tell’ that are right for their family.
What is annoying is that Pennings, having stirred up a hornets nest, is almost certainly sitting in his ivory tower in Ghent with a Cheshire Cat smile on his face enjoying all the attention.
Link to piece in BioNews – worth reading for the comments alone. Watch next week for responses. http://www.bionews.org.uk/page_842013.asp
Update at 31.05.17 See Comment in BioNews by Eric Blyth et al in response to the Pennings piece. http://www.bionews.org.uk/page_845387.asp
Three letters challenging Pennings approach to the research on ‘telling’ have now been published in Human Reproduction plus a rather bad tempered and ill-informed response by Pennings himself.
Update at 5th June 2017: Another excellent critique of Pennings in BioNews http://www.bionews.org.uk/page_847313.asp