Friday, January 9, 2009

A Creation Myth for the 21st Century

By Lea Singh
January 9, 2009

Did anyone ever ask IVF children whether they wanted to go through life as genetic orphans?

This month, a court in British Columbia, Canada is expected to certify an important class action that was launched near the end of last year by a gutsy 26-year-old journalist. Her name is Olivia Pratten, and her lawsuit is likely to become a major thorn in the side of the booming fertility industry. Olivia was conceived with the sperm of an anonymous donor, and she is supposed to not care about her genetic origins -- after all, she was wanted and loved by her "intended" parents. But Olivia compares herself to adopted children, and like them, she wants the law to recognize her right to information about her biological parent.

Many people are still surprised to learn of the scale of the donor-gamete business. Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, was only born in 1978. How much could have happened in just 30 years? Let's put it this way – the growth of reproductive technologies has been not linear, but exponential. In 2006, Harvard Business School Professor Deborah Spar estimated the worth of the fertility industry at US$3 billion in the US alone.

IVF has become a beacon of hope for many infertile couples who could not otherwise have their own biological children. What can compete with the powerful pain of infertility, combined with the desperate desire for parenthood? Regardless of its cost, and despite a success rate of only about 30 percent, couples have been willing to pay for IVF, even if it means remortgaging the house or racking up credit card debt. And IVF has opened the door to still other possibilities, especially the use of egg donors and surrogate mothers, the genetic screening of embryos, and recently, the creation of embryos with the sperm of infertile men (ICSI, a technique known to transfer infertility to the resulting male children).

The use of donor sperm was of course possible before IVF, and artificial insemination was practised to some extent even before Louise Brown came along -– but the practice really took off with the IVF boom. It has now become a gigantic industry, where profit-driven sperm banks compete in marketing paid "donors" -– and not just to infertile couples: the world's largest sperm bank, the California Cryobank, reports that over 30 percent of its clients are single women and a growing proportion are lesbian couples. Just visit their website to order from an incredible selection of donors described by physical features, occupation and education, sports inclinations, interests and personality tests, baby photos, personal essays, and even handwriting analysis and audio interviews. And for many fertility businesses, the higher the caliber of the donors, the higher the price.

Like a religion, the whole donor-conception industry is undergirded by a central creation myth. The industry cannot stand without faith in this central tenet: that biological parenthood is irrelevant, and that "social" parenthood is what matters for children's full emotional and psychological development. The theme of every sperm bank and egg donor agency is effectively the Beatles song "All you need is love." Needless to say, many infertile couples are only too happy to sing along and accept this claim at face value. Few reflect on the paradox that they clearly want a biological connection while denying its importance for their children. In effect, the industry heals the parents at the children's expense, by giving them their own genetic children while depriving these children of a biological parent.

Back to Olivia Pratten. According to the creation myth of the fertility industry, Olivia should not give a hoot about her anonymous sperm donor. She is one of those very special donor-conception children who was very deeply wanted and loved by her "intended" parents. For her, the anonymous donor should be on par with a nice blood donor who once donated blood to her parents – barely anything to do with her, right?

And yet, Olivia is disturbing the peace and challenging the creation myth. She insists that her sperm donor is important to her, and she speaks of the "psychological distress" she has suffered at not knowing her biological history, including what race, culture, and religion her biological father may have come from. In 2001, she went to the Canadian Parliament and told the Standing Committee on Health: "the genetic tie that I share with my biological father cannot be minimized or made to disappear. I carry it with me. It is visible in who I am and what I will be…. I'm always left pondering, trying to put the pieces together of who this man was and how this relates to who I am today. If I could somehow know who he was…everything I already know about myself would be put into a different context, and I believe my perception of things would be altered."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The ethical issues involved with this are not going to go away once we ban anonymity. Yea, that's a start, certainly, but it is the mindset, the "i have a right" to what I want because I want it and will do whatever I have to do to get it at any cost. And if anyone else has a problem with it I will say "it's my right!" and I'm insulted and call you insensitive -- etc. etc. -- that's an even bigger problem IMHO.

There are two comments listed on the Mercatornet site, where the article originated, which were particularly noteworthy. The first was written by Caroline Lorbach of (The donor conception support group of australia - and the second was a response to Caroline by the author of the article, Lea Singh. I am going to re-post there dialogue below:

Caroline Lorbach:
Thank you to Lea for a very thought provoking article. The situation in donor conception in ‘western’ countries begs the questions why did adoption “evolve” to a situation whereby most countries began to change in the 1970’s to allow all adoptees the right to know the identity of their birth parents but why did donor conception stay with an anonymous system?
In most countries birth parents were promised that the children that they were relinquishing would never be able to find out who they were. This changed (& sometimes legislation promising anonymity had to be overturned)and the change to allow adoptees the right to know the identity of their birth parents has rarely caused any conflict.
Does the answer lie in the fact that donor conception has and is run for the most part by private companies & individuals who are making money from the system the way they have set it up? In most countries adoption was always organised by religious groups of government organisations.
Why do donor offspring such as Olivia have to jump through hoops of fire to justify why she needs information which most of us take completely for granted? Why are we not saying that Olivia should be able to have whatever information is recorded on here donor and then ask the Doctor to jump through hoops of fire to justify why Olivia shouldn’t have the information.

Lea Singh's response to Caroline:
Caroline, good question. I don’t think the road has been easy for adoptees either in terms of getting their rights recognized. But adoptees have it easier in some ways. For one, adoption was never based on the idea that “love is all you need”. Society has never seen adoption as equally good to parenting by biological parents. Rather, it was considered the best solution to a crisis situation in which the biological parents could not, for whatever reasons, parent the child sufficiently. There was always a societal understanding that adoptive children had suffered a loss by not knowing their biological parents (and siblings/extended families), and there was a general compassion when they searched for their roots.

In contrast, donor-conceived children were conceived on the premise that the donors don’t matter. After all, if gamete donors mattered to the child, then the whole donor gamete business would be based on harming children by essentially creating half-orphans and giving them up for adoption. So when DI children seek to know their biological parents and compare themselves to adopted children, the whole premise of the fertility industry is endangered. They don’t want to be perceived as creating half-orphans, but rather as creating bundles of joy who are grateful for having been given life at all. They want to continue the myth that the “intended” parents are the REAL parents in every way, and that biology does not matter. Not surprisingly, they fight threats to this central myth tooth and nail - as do many of those who want to use donor gametes to start their families.

Another part of this question, which I would also like to present back to you, is this: is it sufficient to change the law so that donors can no longer be anonymous? Do you really believe that these children can be “satisfied” by providing them with the name, address, and basic factual information about their genetic parent? Do you think that this is all these children long for and need?