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Parenting, Interrupted

Just when society has settled in to the reality and implications of surrogate parenthood, the adult children of medical conception are speaking out against it, Deborah Rankin writes

17 minute read
Parenting, Interrupted August 1, 2016  |  By Deborah Rankin
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In recent years, a new group of kids arrived on the block: children cut off from their natural parents, usually their biological fathers, by so-called "intended" parents determined to build a family through third-party conception and surrogacy in the use of new reproductive technologies.

Now, adult children conceived through anonymous sperm donation have a message about themselves and the next generation of kids being conceived through extraordinary medical means. They have taken their message to the mainstream media, are sharing their stories on social media, have argued their cause in the courts, and continue to bear witness to their truth in legislative hearings around the globe.

Their message is clear to anyone who isn't tonedeaf: Don't kid yourselves. The kids are not all right. They want their rights and they're speaking out. Listen to what they are telling you. But as childless couples and single adults – gay and straight – decide to opt into parenting at all cost by designing family structures on their own terms, is anyone listening to what the kids have to say?

According to the latest statistics of Assisted Human Reproduction Canada (AHRC), the now defunct federal regulatory agency, and contrary to popular belief, most users of reproductive medicine don't have any medical diagnosis of infertility. The barren state of wannabe parents who are heterosexual is usually related to age (i.e., past the natural child-bearing years) or marital status (i.e., lack of a partner). However, the AHRC's stats show that the majority of recipients (intended or "commissioning" parents) are homosexuals. Regardless of the reasons for childlessness, thousands of Canadian children are permanently separated from their natural parents every year. In the process, they are disconnected from their blood relatives, too, forever split off from generations on their family trees.

This is occurring as Canadians are just coming to grips with the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair about the harm done to First Nation children who were removed from their natural kinship groups and communities of origin. But nobody in the political class is connecting the dots between what went on before and what's happening now. These days it's all being brokered by the multibillion dollar reproductive and pharmaceutical industries, which have plenty of political capital to spend, giving the whole process a veneer of legitimacy. But despite the aura of science and money, there is scant health reporting information by government departments or agencies on the multiple risks associated with the new reproductive techno-science.

The AHRC was supposed to oversee the application of the new technologies but was shut down in 2013 by the Conservative government while the law governing criminal prohibitions has never been enforced in the 12-plus years since it received Royal Assent. The law on new reproductive technologies mandated the creation of an assisted-human reproduction agency to provide regulatory oversight in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians. Prior to the law's passage in 2004, the draft bill had also mandated donor-identification in recognition of the right of children to know about their biological parentage and to have access to their medical history. But this key item was dropped by the Liberal government of the time, possibly to appease supporters of reproductive technologies, who went so far as to lobby Parliament for mandatory sperm and egg donation in the proposed law, arguing that this was no different than jury duty. Fortunately, that coercive measure was not included in the law.

Instead, the new law was heavily skewed to one side, favouring the commissioning parents over the children while requiring that there be no discrimination in the application of the new technologies on the basis of age, marital status or sexual orientation – this, despite the fact that decades of research by the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, which predated the law, had shown serious problems for donor-conceived children, as well as sperm donors, their spouses and custodial children. For example, documented evidence demonstrated that some donor-conceived children were unwittingly marrying their half-siblings and having children with them. But the commission's final published report lies almost hermetically sealed in dusty tombs – thousands of pages detailing years of meticulous research – in public, university and government libraries, with most informed citizens not even being aware of its existence.

It's not rocket science to figure out that somewhere at the intersection of money and politics the deck is stacked against donor-conceived individuals who seem to be at the bottom of a de facto hierarchy of rights, despite never-ending official pronouncements about equality and diversity. Donorconception is comparatively rare and people in this category are on unequal footing compared to the rest of society with respect to knowledge of their familial heritage and all the rights embedded in it. The manner of their conception and gestation also makes them different. So what is there to even talk about if they need information about their biological origins in order to effectively manage their lives?

Olivia Pratten, a donor-conceived adult in her late 30s, made history when she launched a Charter challenge in 2008 against anonymous sperm donation. She says the blatant disregard for the wellbeing of donor-conceived individuals boils down to the profit motive and lax enforcement of the law, the "unabashedly commercial, unregulated practices that continue to put the rights of the children last." For despite the ban on the purchase or sale of sperm and eggs in Canada, it's common knowledge that illegal sperm donation continues. "Donation" is a misnomer if ever there was one. Several years ago, the Journal de Montréal reported on a thriving black market in human sperm and eggs in Quebec, with egg sellers getting up to $10,000 per transaction.

Pratten found out the hard way that the powers that be just weren't interested in her concerns. She was conceived in the early '80s when her parents, who couldn't conceive on their own, turned to sperm donation. They had always been upfront with her about how she was conceived and fully supported her desire to know the identity of her biological father, advocating for laws to protect the interests of donor-children – hardly the norm in a sub-culture that some critics disparage as a babymaking cult.

The doctor who oversaw Pratten's conception had different ideas. He refused to disclose her biological father's name when she asked him for it, propelling her on a journey to secure genetic identity rights for donor-children that would span almost 20 years (she was only 19 at the time). However, the question of her own paternal progenitor became moot when she pressed the issue in court and was told that her records had been destroyed, something she has never quite believed.

The Nanaimo, B.C., native, who now resides in London, England, where she works as an editor, was ultimately unsuccessful when she argued before the courts in British Columbia that children conceived through sperm donation should have the same rights as adopted children to know who their birth fathers are. Initially, the B.C. Supreme Court agreed with her, but the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the lower court's decision on technical grounds that left many legal observers scratching their heads.

The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled on the one hand that there was no constitutional right to know about one's natural parents, while on the other hand accepting the finding of fact by the B.C. Supreme Court that anonymous sperm donation was harmful to children because it prevented them from having information about their biological parents, engendering emotional suffering and practical problems, an argument that should have met the threshold for affirmative action.

When Pratten asked the Supreme Court of Canada to hear her appeal, it declined – without explanation, as is its prerogative. This dashed her hopes for any recognition of the rights of donor-children, at least in the near future, to know who they are and where they came from – something the vast majority of Canadians take for granted. While it might be obvious to an Aboriginal Canadian, whose culture promotes knowledge of ancestors going back hundreds of years, that family history is very important, apparently the same cannot be said for some members of the Canadian judicial class who view knowledge of one's natural parentage as of no consequence.

Pratten was devastated when the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada came down in the fall of 2013. "My files were destroyed – the fact that that's fine is not okay. It's a step in the wrong direction," she said. "I never want anyone to be in my situation again. And unfortunately, as a result of this ruling, there will be more people in my situation."

In spite of the fact that she didn't win, her legal case has had a profound impact, garnering media coverage for donor-conceived individuals who were formerly invisible. "I've always said that my case was only the tip of the iceberg, and I predict an army of donor-conceived litigants [and those carried by surrogates] within the next 10 years," she says. "Why? The combination of the following: the practice of 'not telling' started to become condemned about 15 to 20 years ago, so many more people know about their origins. Combined with delayed [child-bearing] and more people using surrogates and 'donated' gametes."

The whole issue of genetic identity rights turns on a profound yet unstated contradiction: although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and other inherited characteristics that constitute a person's genetic identity, donor-conceived people are being denied the very knowledge of their genetic identities as a result of anonymous gamete (sperm and egg) donation, lack of redress by the courts and, perhaps more importantly, a legislative vacuum on access to biological information. However, knowledge of genetic identity is the pre-condition for an individual being able to claim discrimination on the basis of genetic markers of identity: for example, ethnicity (also cultural) or congenital conditions.

Make no mistake about it, though. The growing trend of hiving off children from their families of origin, in many instances erasing any records of the child's genetic identity relating to family ancestry, sex, race, ethnicity and possible congenital conditions, doesn't meet any legal litmus test of the best interests of the child, the framing principle of Canadian law. Rather, the systematic uprooting of children from their biological origins through preconception and surrogacy contracts flouts the very intentions of the law and is at odds with social norms everywhere on the planet. The bottom line is that this controversial and experimental approach to making babies is occurring for no other reason than because some people want it, for personal reasons (users), financial gain (industry) or political expediency (lawmakers).

"All of this will result in more people like myself who – I predict – will fight back," Pratten says. "Hopefully they'll demand money and will win. Unfortunately, I think this is the only way the industry will change: once they realize they will be held responsible to respect the rights of the resulting offspring. Hopefully this happens in the United States. Because the lack of laws there undermines other countries [such as Canada] from enforcing their own regulations. Change the practices in the U.S. and it will ripple everywhere else."

A 2010 U.S. study, "My Daddy's Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation," co-investigated by Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval D. Glenn and Karen Clark, showed that two thirds of donor-conceived participants affirmed the right of donor children to know the truth about their origins. About half expressed concerns about or serious objections to donor conception itself, even when the children are told the truth. So, Pratten may not be far off in her prognostications about future litigation.

These days, she waxes philosophic about her experience in fighting for the rights of donor children to know about their natural origins. "It's time for me to pass the baton," she says.

Like many a weary activist, she's moved on. But, if there were to be another important legal challenge in the offing, would she gear up for the fight again? "Probably not. I've done my piece; but who knows," she says.

The issue of bypassing natural filiation is further complicated by the fact that most of the children born as a result of reproductive technologies today no longer have a birth mother to whom they are genetically related. Strange as this may seem, this new breed of children don't have what every animal born in nature has: one biological mother. Their birth is the end result of an assembly-line reproductive process known as the bifurcation of motherhood, in which a child receives his or her maternal genes from an egg progenitor or donor, but is carried to term by another woman, often referred to as a surrogate or gestational carrier by the industry, or a birthing mother by bioethicists. However, in most cases the gestating woman doesn't raise the child. Moreover, future parents may decide to design a child's very genes, choosing the sex and other genetic traits of so-called designer babies through reprogenetics.

Margaret Somerville, a law professor and founding director of the McGill University law faculty's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, refers to children who have been orphaned from their natural parents by medical design rather than tragic fate as "genetic orphans." She raises questions about the ethics of untethering children from their biological moorings in order to satisfy the desires of adults, an approach she characterizes as "adult-centred."

"We've known for a long time," she says, "that, in general, children do best when they know their biological mothers and fathers and are reared by them within their own immediate and wider biological families. I believe that should remain the societal norm, with any exceptions requiring clear justification."

In Somerville's view, the meaning shifts when the separation of children from their natural families is socially engineered.

"It is one matter, ethically, when children are not reared by their biological parents in their biological families because of accidental circumstances or as a result of entirely private action," she says, highlighting the need for a public policy framework that recognizes the rights of the (as yet) unconceived. "It is quite another when that outcome is deliberately planned and society, through its support, funding, institutions and public and social policies, is complicit in its realization."

Somerville is a tireless advocate for the rights of children to natural biological origins and family structure (i.e., to have both a mother and a father) and has made the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child a touchtone for these rights. It states unambiguously that children have the right to "know and be raised by their parents" and to have "close personal relationships" with them. Adoption is understood as the exception to the norm for "grave" reasons but still requiring the informed consent of the child's living parents, as well as other family members in these rare instances, all subject to judicial discretion in the child's best interests.

This highlights yet another anomaly in Canadian public policy where the welfare of children is concerned, for although Canada signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and indeed was a driving force behind its ratification in 1990, its lofty principles go unheeded in the context of the use of reproductive technologies and same-sex marriage. The former provide the medical means to disconnect children from their biological parents while the latter provides a legal bulwark for the so-called "social" parent to wedge in against the opposite-sex biological parent and adopt the donor-child.

It's worth noting that the NDP program supports the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child being brought into force in Canada, which could provide donor children with a legal framework for better protection of children's rights in the future should the NDP ever come to power or another government decide to do the same. In the meantime, the convention provides an ethical framework for discussion and debate on best practices for children, for it stipulates that social well-being must always be taken into account in assessing children's rights.

It should be obvious that social well-being must be taken into account in assessing the needs of children whose conception and circumstances are unique. In a paper reviewing multiple studies on the grief and loss experienced by donor-conceived adults in 2001, "From a 'bundle of joy' to a person with sorrow: disenfranchised grief1 for the donorconceived adult," social scientist and author Joanna Rose shows how children conceived through anonymous sperm donation frequently experience lifelong grief and a profound sense of loss stemming from the lack of family connections and identity created by the manner of their conception, invalidation of their feelings by the parents who raise them and lack of support from the wider community.

But in the brave new world of reproductive science, nobody talks about donor children, presumably with some rights of their own. Industry insiders speak only of reproductive gametes, embryos and offspring, demeaning terms that freeze donor-conceived individuals in time, pre-empting any real discussion of their personal dignity and human rights as adults or their needs as minors, while reducing human procreation to technical procedures in such a way that children are inevitably objectified and commodified as human products. However, socalled offspring are people, not products, and they are raising their voices to claim their rights.

Barry Stevens' film Offspring (2001) takes back the reproductive industry's moniker of "offspring" and claims it for donor-conceived people like himself, recounting his lived experience growing up with his birth mother and the father who raised him, and later his search for his biological father and donor siblings when he learns of the manner of his conception. Stevens is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker in his early 60s who has written and directed several critically acclaimed documentaries, including Offspring and Bio-Dad (2009), chronicling his search for his sperm-donor father, whom he eventually discovered was Dr. Bertold P. Wiesner, the operator of a London-based fertility clinic between 1943 and 1962.

Stevens is one of a growing number of donor-conceived adults who are telling their stories, many among the younger cohort in blogs or on their own websites. Despite their travails, these fatherless and motherless children orphaned by medical design and trapped in a culture of secrecy, grow up. And as adults, they are demanding rights for children like themselves to know who they are and where they came from, while tools such as ancestry.ca and DNA data banks make it easier for donor-conceived individuals to find their biological parents, half-siblings and blood relations.

Dawn Stefanowicz, the author of a controversial exposé on same-sex parenting, Out from Under: The Impact of Homosexual Parenting, grew up in Toronto with her gay parents. She has made it her life's mission to give a voice to children who were dissatisfied growing up in lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) networks where donor conception is very much the norm but any sense of normalcy is not.

"Yes, ART (assisted reproductive technology) and surrogacy is primarily used by gay persons, couples, and now throuples," Stefanowicz says, citing a case in Massachusetts involving three parents. "Unfortunately for these children, most of them will never know at least half their real identity, which creates a great deal of loss and sadness as many of them search for their missing biological parent."

Another big problem with the repro-tech experiment, Stefanowicz says, is that children have become "commodities" who "were not asked if they wanted to start out in life never knowing their father and mother," adding, "There are so many risks to the children conceived this way – mental and physical disabilities, and high risk of infertility."

The 50-something CPA accountant and married mother of two teenagers is only too aware of the difficulties that donor-conceived individuals face in trying to get a sympathetic hearing from the authorities. They are not unlike the problems of other disenfranchised adults who were taken away from their biological parents as children because of coercive, fast-tracked adoptions, or who were deliberately kept away from a parent by a one-sided custody arrangement (usually against the father), or failure to enforce shared custody.

"Children need to know and be raised by their biological parents, if at all possible," she says. "In cases where children are separated from one or both of their biological parents due to separation or divorce, abandonment, sickness or death, the children need to know their biological parents' identity." She acknowledges that children are impacted long term by various family structures and living arrangements.

The prospects for children speaking out, even later in life as adults, are poor when their parents are gay, she says, because the problems experienced by gay-parented children can be quite challenging. In addition to the difficulties that all children who are separated from their natural parents face, kids growing up in LGBT households have to sift through complex issues relating to sexuality and gender identity, without any validation of their own experiences or feelings if they don't mesh with gay and trans-positive views about life under the rainbow, the new paradigm for talking about LGBT issues. LGBT identities and lifestyles may be branded as LOVE – a clever marketing strategy: the word was emblazoned on a banner at the Montreal Pride Parade this summer – but many kids in the LGBT networks just aren't feeling the love. Stefanowicz is one who isn't proudly wearing the rainbow label.

Her advocacy on behalf of gay-parented kids is her "passion," she says. Her tell-all memoir, set in the '60s and '70s in Toronto when gays were beginning to come out of the closet, recounts her tumultuous life growing up in a "homosexual household" with her promiscuous, addicted, suicidal, gay/bisexual father, who eventually succumbed to AIDs, his many lovers who came and went from her life, and her passive lesbian mother, who lived in the same house as the kids, under her father's control.

Bill Muehlenberg of CultureWatch has described it as "surely one of the most politically incorrect books available." He also said it was an "emotional and powerful story," a factor that doubtless accounts for the surprisingly good reviews from readers, judging from Internet posts. However, LGBT groups like GLAAD have criticized Stefanowicz for what they view as an inflammatory misrepresentation of same-sex parenting.

Stefanowicz's upbringing may have been particularly stressful compared to other gay-parented kids (or not), but one of the major problems she sees for children raised in LGBT networks is that kids hear that gender doesn't matter but it does, especially for children of the other sex in the household.

"We as children, hear gender does not matter, but when we look at our home environments where only one sex is loved, we feel hurt and rejection deeply, when we are the unloved sex. As a girl raised and surrounded by gay men, it was mortifying to my identity and self-confidence. I need to see that women are loved, not just men."

All things considered, the prospect of donor-conceived children actually gaining any recognition of genetic identity rights in the context of ramped-up LGBT activism is daunting. Of course, not all LGBT activists are militants and certainly LGBT individuals have legitimate concerns of their own. Some gay parents even support genetic identity rights for donor-conceived children. It's not all black and white. But, much of LGBT thinking today is about blurring the boundaries of sex and gender through unscientific sex-education that doesn't rest on a biological foundation, obscuring children's biological identity markers through anonymous third-party conception or altering them through reprogenetics. All the while, social parenthood is reconfigured by overriding biological connections between parents and children, and necessitating the medicalized reproductive exploitation of other people, typically the young, vulnerable, poor and marginalized.

LGBT medical-technological activism extends after birth, promoting societal recognition of transgender identification of children who have neither the cognitive nor emotional skills to process such a complex change, and who can't give informed legal consent. Some transgender activists are trying to remove the identification of biological sex, i.e., male or female, on legal documents such as passports. In one case that made national headlines, a gay male couple went to court to have the mother's name removed from the child's birth certificate, something which never used to happen. A similar front-page news story involved a well-known Catholic priest supporting a gay couple's decision to have both their names on the child's baptismal certificate in lieu of the birth parents

When such socio-medical engineering is openly advocated and goes largely unchallenged, how can donor-conceived people, or anyone for that matter, really assert their Charter rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex or other inherited characteristics? LGBT activists and their straight pro-medi-tech counterparts are ideologically committed to overriding and altering core biological dimensions of human existence. The truth is that genetic identity rights will never be extended to donor-conceived people as long as these full-blown social experiments continue unrestrained. In fact, genetic identity is in danger of disappearing for the majority who aren't donor-conceived, highlighting a pressing need for legislation to protect the biological heritage of all citizens.

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