In the past several months we have written a couple of times about the world of anonymous parentage and the conflict it has unintentionally ignited. In October we published “23 and EEEEEE” excerpting from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s story about how modern genetic testing sometimes reveals things which both children and biologic parents never expected to know. In January we covered a Wall Street Journal story about a child afflicted with a genetic disorder his parents never knew about when they relied upon an anonymous donor to make pregnancy possible.
The cover of the Review Section of the May 28-29 Wall Street Journal offers more personal insight into how painful and unnerving this process has become. It profiled three people ranging in age from 34-42 discussing the importance and the odyssey of finding their genetic parents. The article is important for both children and egg/sperm donors to realize the consequence of human creation and to grasp both sides of the anonymity question. In an age when controversy seems to devolve into a battle between “my side” and “the wrong side” the article illustrates that the quest to have a child sometimes produces painful and lasting consequences.
In the child’s corner is a 34 year old environmental lawyer from Atlanta. His position could not be more concisely stated than when he offers this statement. “ Knowledge about my genetic origins doesn’t belong only to my parents and the donor…. The information is also mine.” Some children profess to be interested only in their genetic information as a resource for their own health decision making. But, think about it. “Family life” is really a search for context; not merely data.
The three adults profiled in the Journal article are in a search for context; for meaning to their lives. Unfortunately, many children in their position will find the search an empty one. In Pennsylvania, one of the candidates for a United States Senate seat revealed that she is the product her mother’s rape at age eleven. An amazing story of perseverance for mother and child; but a sad story as well. Less compelling but perhaps more instructive is the interview the Journal had with a mature adult who sold his genetic material as a means of financing his way through medical school. As a physician, the genetic father understands that today a biological child needs to know whether schizophrenia or some other dangerous disorder runs in his family. He accepts the fact that either he or the fertility clinic could have done better in evaluating him as a candidate. But he is also somewhat overwhelmed by the realization that he may be the father of many, many children. That reality cannot be denied but he observes that it was never his intention to create a genetic family of dozens or perhaps even hundreds. He was told and reasonably assumed that his role was anonymous.
The 34 year old lawyer ultimately locates his biological grandfather. That man admits him to his home and there is a brief conversation. The lawyer is trying to build a context. He comes away describing the encounter as an “out of body experience.” In one sense, he is standing in the presence of his genetic grandfather. In another, it may well be that genetic grandfather has no idea whether or why his son chose to provide sperm to fertilize an egg 30+ years before. Yes, there are those who created a baby with no expectation of a sustained relationship. In most of these situations, there was no expectation of any relationship. Meanwhile, is it not normal that the child wants to know who his genetic parent is? Consider as well that gestational mothers who actually carry a child to term and then literally “deliver” a baby.
The Journal reports that we don’t really tract data on anything other than in vitro fertilizations. That’s an interesting fact but to adults, statistics provide no meaningful context about how they came about. Obviously, many parents are prepared to have the discussion about how and why they chose the course they did. But, can they fault the child for remaining curious about the anonymous person who made it happen.
In a historical sense, parents of the 1980s and beyond who chose to have children through third party intervention vastly underestimated the curiosity of their offspring. More disturbing is that we missed the fact that kids might need to know their genetic histories as a means of protecting their own well-being. This is an extremely important topic and one which merits serious discussion that balances privacy with transparency.
Mid-day today the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published a story about a man in central England who assisted with conception of fifteen (15) children while knowing that he had a genetic condition producing intellectual disability termed “Fragile X.” The Court in that instance actually named the donor as a matter of protecting women from the risk that he might otherwise create more children. Clearly this is an evolving story. The Journal article illustrates that it is also an unsettling one.