Comments on Julie Shapiro’s blog post “Sperm donors and fathers”

Julie Shapiro, a professor of law at Seattle University School of Law (see her profile here: http://julieshapiro.wordpress.com/about-julie-shapiro/) has been discussing/debating issues surrounding “donor/vendor” conception on her blog. On her most recent blog entry “Sperm donors and fathers” (http://julieshapiro.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/sperm-donors-and-fathers/#comments) there were several noteworthy comments which I felt worth sharing here for consideration:

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“Nelly // November 11, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Reply

The man that you describe in your post is certainly doing a wonderful job. This is not, however, the same as saying that he is the father of the child.

Sperm donation has taught us, how important the biological connection is. When couples are asked why they chose sperm donation, rather than adoption, they usually don’t mention the practical difficulties, but say that they want at least one of them to be biologically connected to the child. If they want more than one child, it is important to them to use the same sperm donor, so that the children will be full siblings and therefore more attached to each other.

The biological connection is no less important to the child, than it is to its parents. Very few parents tell their child that is the product of a sperm donation. When the truth comes out, it is usually in connection with a family conflict or a divorce. It can be devastating to the child.

It is tempting to use the word “father”, for a man who nurtures a child, as if it was his own, but it is not honest. It would be nice if it was like in the old Beatles song: “Love is all you need”, but the truth is that people also need an identity, which good or bad, is something quite different from love.

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Julie Shapiro // November 13, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Reply

I wonder what you would call him?

Surely he ought to be a legal parent of the child? Suppose the child needed medical care? He ought to be authorized to consent. Or if the child wanted to be enrolled in school, he should be allowed to sign the needed papers. It makes no sense to me to say that (assuming the donor were known) an absent figure would be the one with power to make these decisions.

Beyond legal parent, I think I know we disagree. I say he is the father of that child. I know you say the sperm donor is the father, but even here, I wonder what you would call Gary Blitt–what title does he get?

I worry about the harm your terminology might do to the child here. In her world, “father” has a certain meaning. Many kids she knows have fathers. From her point of view, Gary Blitt seems to be the same as those other dads. But you tell her she should not call him that, that he is not real. What can this do but make her feel there is something wrong with her family, her home?

I’m inclined to agree that they might want to tell her, at some point (possibly at several points) about how they used a sperm donor. And given the story in Redbook I imagine that they will or they have. I’m sure at different times she’ll have different questions, and they should answer them.

Perhaps she’ll want to know more about her donor, maybe want to meet him. Perhaps she will not, though. That lies ahead.

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Philip Cohen // November 11, 2009 at 6:44 pm | Reply

Only biological parents give you “an identity”? Seems odd. There are people without identities? If this is true, then the people without biological parents or siblings would be truly lost, but they aren’t. Instead of running down non-bio relationships, we may as well work on building them up, since they are unavoidable anyway.
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Sandy May // November 11, 2009 at 11:28 pm | Reply

Philip, you say: “Instead of running down non-bio relationships, we may as well work on building them up, since they are unavoidable anyway.”

Hey, What about working hard on outlawing non-bio parenthood except for adoption. That seems a much better suggestion to me. If a crime is being committed, rather than make the criminal act legal oner should introduce more policing. Clearly, a moral crime is being permitted through the unrestricted use of donor gametes especially allowing anonymity, so let’s put brakes on the practice and police the system.
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Philip Cohen // November 12, 2009 at 4:38 am | Reply

OK, if you’re going to make sperm donation a crime, you may as well make single parenthood altogether a crime, since that also may entail no bio-parent. You’re gonna need a bigger jail.
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Nelly // November 12, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Reply

Philip: You say: There are people without identities? If this is true, then the people without biological parents or siblings would be truly lost, but they aren’t.

There are not people without biological parents, but there are people searching for them. Many of these people have problems with their identity.

Let me give you an example. One of my daughters girl friends was told by her mother, when she was 17, that she was the product of a sperm donation. Her parents had divorced and the mother resented that her daughter didn’t get along with her new partner. 6 years later she has still not recovered from the shock. Now, she only has contact with her Daddy, who keeps telling her that it doesn’t matter, but to no avail. He can give her his love, but he can’t restore her stolen identity.

When you buy sperm, you can get almost all what you wish, but identity is not included in the price tag.
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Karen // November 12, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Reply

Philip,
Perhaps if you see how important genetic/bio identity is from the POV of adoption it might better help you to understand how equally important this is to some/many donor conceived:

http://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/assisted_overview_article.php

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Julie Shapiro // November 13, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Reply

I think it is a mistake to broadly conflate adoption and assisted conception. There are both similarities and differences to explore. It’s something I hope to get to here, perhaps soon.

More generally, there’s no question in my mind that genetic heritage is part of some people’s identity. I don’t know that this is inherent, though. That is, genetic heritage may be important because various cultures give it weight. I’m not sure it’s importance is “natural.”

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Tom // November 14, 2009 at 2:22 am | Reply

It doesn’t matter whether its importance is natural. The fact is it *is* important.

And it doesn’t matter whether it just applies to *some* donor-conceived people or *all* donor conceived people. Since you can’t predict in advance which human beings it will be important to you are depriving some the freedom of making their own choice to connect with their mothers and fathers.
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Stina // November 14, 2009 at 6:09 am | Reply

I agree with Tom that it does not matter whether a desire is natural or socially constructed. Most human rights as freedom of speech, non-discrimination, or the right to fair trial are not inherent to humans and despite that fundamental rights. Law decides the way we want to construct society.

Maybe you are interested in a judgement of the German Federal Constitutional Court from 1989, which says that the knowledge of one’s ancestry is part of the German constitution’s basic rights. I have translated the essential paragraph:

The right to free evolvement of personality and human dignity secures to each individual an autonomous area of private lifestyle, in which he can develop and preserve his individuality. Understanding and evolvement of individuality are however closely attached to the knowledge of the facts which constitute them. To these ranks amongst others ancestry. Ancestry does not only constitute the genetic equipment of an individual and thus forms his personality. Irrespective of that it adopts a key position for the finding of individuality and self image in the individual’s conscience. To that extent, the personal value of knowledge does not depend on the degree of clarification, which biology is currently able to procure about human predispositions and which may be important for his or her way of life. The finding of individuality and self image is a rather multilayered process, in which biologically secured findings are by no means solely decisive. As an attribute of individuality, ancestry is a part of personality, and an individual’s knowledge of his or her ancestry offers irrespectively of the degree of scientific results important links to the understanding and evolvement of the own individuality. Therefore, the personal rights include the knowledge of one’s ancestry.”