29 April 2013
Professor of sociology at the Morgan Centre, University of ManchesterAppeared in BioNews 702
I attended the launch of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on 'Ethical aspects of information sharing in donor conception' on 17 April 2013. At the meeting, the report was not universally welcomed and some of the audience were disappointed that it did not champion more forcefully children's rights and related measures to mandate and regulate the flow of information in families and between kin.
However, from my point of view as a sociologist carrying out research in this field, the report is to be welcomed as a scholarly and balanced contribution to current debates. I think it is important therefore to understand the basic premises of the report before considering the value of some of the recommendations.
There are three foundational concepts which frame the thinking of the report. Firstly, there is a shift away from the language of individual rights to a consideration of interests and values which in turn need to be weighed and balanced. This thinking is of course not new in areas concerning family life. For example, the Children Act 1989 emphasised a move away from 'rights thinking' as being inherently unhelpful in the field of family relationships.
Secondly, there is an emphasis on webs of relationships (or kinship) rather than the view that sees families as separate individuals who operate independently of one another.
Finally, the report places emphasis on the importance of reciprocity and the assumption of responsibilities in family life, noting that love and care are constructed through these everyday qualities. This point is particularly significant in face of the increasingly popular assumption that the relationships that matter most are genetically determined rather than painstakingly built through everyday acts of attentiveness and care.
It is in this context that the report addressed the vexed question of disclosing to children that they are conceived through donor conception. While there was a clear consensus based on existing empirical research that 'telling' is the most appropriate course of action for parents, the report did not embrace the idea of mandatory measures which would force parents to follow a particular course. Given the conceptual starting points of the report, it would have been startling had they come to any other conclusion.
The idea of a legally enforceable mandate that would require parents who had received donor gametes to tell their children the exact details of their conception simply could not fit with an understanding of family life based on ideas of mutually entangled values, interests, responsibilities and care. The report's approach was therefore more of an invitation to parents to participate in the growing consensus on the positive value of 'telling' children about their origins. This may seem feeble to those who are ardently committed to a children's rights perspective, but from the point of view of the findings of our ongoing research on disclosure in donor conceived families, I find myself hugely relieved that the report does not espouse draconian measures against parents. This is because our research has found how hard it is for parents to tell, even where they are committed to doing so.
Telling involves not just the parent and child – as if they were an isolated unit – but potentially both sets of grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, friends including members of community or religious groups, and even the parents of the child's school friends. To undertake to do this requires a particular fortitude which, arguably, parents need help to achieve rather than being faced with the threat of enforced disclosure.
It is clear that at present, not every parent can follow what has become the dominant script in this new parenting narrative, just as not all followed the 'rules' back in the 1960s when infertility doctors virtually swore them to secrecy. However, the tide seems to be running in favour of this kind of openness and the report's emphasis on encouraging this tide is to be welcomed.
As part of the aim of furthering this kind of cultural shift, the report also bravely tackles the complex, but crucial, question of identity. To put it simply, a division appears to exist – there are those who think that genetic inheritance determines one's identity or, at the very least, is the essential component of identity and hence an inalienable human right. There are also those who understand the construction of identity as an ongoing process which combines elements taken from genes, biology, culture, history, place, family relationships and so on. In the latter, genetic inheritance becomes one factor among others rather than the primary definer of the 'self'.
In other words, the report acknowledges that genetic relatedness matters to people but rejects arguments based upon one-dimensional genetic determinism. This thinking is behind the Working Party's hope that donor conception will eventually become 'no big deal'. Their premise is based on the idea that silence and secrecy surround matters that are painful, shameful or simply too hot to handle. In seeking to 'normalise' donor conception (for example in the way that illegitimacy has been normalised and de-stigmatised) the report aims to make the whole process easier for both parents and children. In this respect, I find the report to be a most welcome contribution to ongoing debates on how contemporary British society should respond to this new reproductive revolution.