Branding parents ‘deceitful’

A British committee's shocking proposal to stamp a child's 'donor origins' on birth certificates reduces parenting to a basic biological function.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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A report published by a British committee of parliamentarians yesterday – which scrutinised proposed government legislation on embryo research, fertility treatment and the wider ethical ramifications of these developments – made some progressive proposals on how the law should be shaped in the future. However, it also suggested that children who are the product of donated eggs or sperm should have this fact noted on their birth certificates. This is an outrageous proposal. If a child’s ‘donor information’ were to be included on his or her birth certificate, it would both undermine the authority of adoptive and IVF-treated parents and denigrate the very idea of parenthood.

The Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, whose members come from the Houses of Commons and Lords, was set up by parliament to examine the government’s proposed legislation, published in May this year. Some of the committee’s proposals, unveiled yesterday, point the way forward in areas that were previously regarded as controversial. For example, the committee suggests having a more permissive attitude to the creation of ‘saviour siblings’. This is where families choose to use genetic screening in order to produce a child who can provide cells to help another sick child within the family. Such use of fertility is already legal in cases where the already existing child has a life-threatening condition; the committee now proposes that it should be legal when the child has a ‘serious’ condition, too. This freeing up of parents’ fertility choices should be welcomed.

The committee has also rejected the government’s proposal that ‘hybrid embryos’ – where human genetic material is inserted into an animal cell – should be banned. These embryos could be extremely useful for research purposes, given the supply of fully human embryos is currently very limited. Again, the committee’s opposition to banning the use of such embryos is a positive development. However, the committee makes an error of judgement when it says the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is the appropriate body to make decisions about how and when the use of hybrid embryos should be permitted. The HFEA is a deeply conservative body. It has held back widely supported and humane developments, such as the creation of ‘saviour siblings’. As John Gillott has argued on spiked, if there is a major ethical concern with aspects of embryo research, it should be debated by legislators, not regulators (see Keeping the research in an embryonic state).

The Joint Committee’s most controversial proposal is to force parents to disclose on birth certificates if their child is the product of egg or sperm donation. In other words, birth certificates should declare, for all to see, that a child’s parents are not really their real parents. This is justified on the basis that being open with children about their origins is preferable to withholding facts from them. Phil Willis MP, chair of the committee, said: ‘If parents want to deceive their children, that’s their decision. But it is our view that the state should not be complicit in that.’

Some MPs have come out against this proposal. Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats’ science spokesman, told BBC News that the recommendation was a ‘bizarre and intrusive solution to a problem that has never been demonstrated to exist’. ‘There is no proper evidence that children or adults suffer from not knowing who their “real fathers” are, whether from IVF or from infidelity’, said Dr Harris. Indeed, it is hard to see who would benefit from this interfering proposal. Despite Phil Willis’ accusation of ‘deceit’ against parents who do not tell their children that they are the product of donated eggs or sperm, there is nothing fraudulent in what these mums and dads are doing. They are simply getting on with the real job of parenting which is to love, protect and care for one’s children. Surely the most appropriate people to determine what is best for a child – and whether the child should be told anything about his or her ‘origins’ – are those who have devoted considerable time, energy and love to that child.

The committee’s proposal completely undercuts parental authority. By discussing parents as ‘deceitful’, and calling on the authorities to take the initative of publishing donor information so that a child or adult can discover for themselves where they come from, the committee is kicking mums and dads out of the picture. If this proposal were to be implemented, it would override the decisions made by parents themselves about what to tell their kids. It also sends a powerful message to society at large: you cannot trust parents to tell you the whole truth because they are sometimes ‘deceitful’, but you can rely on the state to be your honest and upfront friend in times of need. Such ham-fisted state intervention would likely cause misery and uncertainty for great numbers of parents, who would never know for sure whether little John or Jane will discover how they really came into the world.

The proposal also points to a degraded view of what it means to be a parent. By suggesting that donor information be published on birth certificates, the committee seems to want to privilege the donation of sperm and eggs over the actual everyday, 18-year-long task of parenting. It would elevate those who donated the most basic material for the creation of the child to the same status as those who later brought the child up. But children are more than the product of sperm and eggs; they are shaped and made by their relationships with their lifelong mums and dads. A father is more than a man who masturbates into a cup in a cold white room in a hospital, and a mother is more than the producer of eggs: fathers and mothers are people who care for children over long periods of time. The committee seems to view parenting as a basic biological task rather than as an intense personal, familial and social activity; it seems to view children as little more than the sum of their genes.

This biological view of parenting, and the determination to make donor information available, is already having a negative impact on fertility treatment. Sperm donation is in crisis in Britain. For men, the prospect of being confronted by a person they ‘created’, 18, 30 or 40 years after they masturbated for money, has made many give up on the idea. From a high of 459 new sperm donors per year in the 1990s, the numbers fell to just 265 in 2006 (a number which the HFEA tried to spin as a success because it was slightly up on the previous year, 2005).

Finally, the committee’s proposal further promotes today’s retrograde concept of ‘identity’. The interest in knowing one’s true origins arises from a view of personal identity that is based on genes or culture. From this standpoint, who you are is not the product of your own relationships, endeavours, achievements and failures; rather it is a legacy handed down to you from the people who provided your chromosomes. This is an extremely passive and conservative understanding of what makes us who we are: it seems to deny that we can actively determine what is important about us and about our lives. We are seen, to one degree or another, as simply the victims of our DNA.

As adults, we have to make our own lives. How we do that may be influenced, for better or worse, by the attitudes and behaviour of our parents – but those who go searching for their biological parents are probably suffering an existential crisis that is unlikely to be solved by meeting a man who ejaculated behind a screen however many years ago. Officially pandering to these personal crusades to discover the ‘genetic truth’, by suggesting that there might be some material basis to these feelings, is unlikely to help many people. But it could cause some serious unhappiness.

Let us hope that the government listens to the committee’s proposals where it suggests we should trust scientists more. Let us also hope that it ignores the proposal that we should trust parents less by stamping genetic information on children’s birth certificates.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons believed the HFEA took a late but sensible decision in allowing women to donate their eggs for genetic research. Cheryl Hudson praised the IVF ‘miracle maker’ and then celebrated his vindication. Mick Hume said the case of the British woman denied the right to use her frozen embryos was a cautionary tale of our times. Jennie Bristow demanded: Down with the fertility police. Or read more at spiked issue Genetics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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