09 January 2017
ByAppeared in BioNews 883
Presented by Veerle Provoost
The question of who constitutes family is a modern philosophical quandary, especially in light of assisted reproductive technologies. Adoption, blended families, donor insemination, donor gametes, and surrogacy have created families in which the purely genetic can no longer be assumed as the defining factor of parenthood.
Given the debate currently taking place in this area, Veerle Provoost's TED talk is quite topical. In it, she explores how term 'parent' should be understood or defined, beginning with a brief overview of the two main positions. The first adopts an objective stance and looks for some absolute factor that can be used to anchor the parent/child relationship, such as a genetic or gestational link. She then moves on to the second, less 'biological' approach, which focuses on the social aspect of parenting and examines the relationships that form in non-traditional families. Here, it is the subjective value of the relationship to the parties involved that is important. The existence of a genetic or gestational link is merely one factor to be considered as part of an overall individual assessment.
In her introduction, Provoost refers to a study that she conducted as the basis of her talk. By interviewing both the parents who used donor insemination and the child conceived through it, she says that she is able to cast light upon the issue of defining family. Provoost then asks the audience a simple question – do children think of sperm donors as a part of their family? Unfortunately, this interesting question remains unanswered at the end of the video.
Her presentational style resulted in a somewhat confusing ramble around tangential issues rather than an incisive discussion about a new definition of family. What starts as a philosophical question about the familial roles of biological donors devolves into rather mundane advice to parents regarding the 'how to' of parenting.
Provoost also fails to provide the audience with any sort of usable list of participants or terms. While she specifically questions the use of the term 'father' in relation to biological donors, she does not offer an alternative term. If donors are not seen as fathers by the children, what should they call them?
I thought the way that Provoost drew out answers from the children, adopting an unstructured conversation around a simple graphical representation of an apple tree, was useful. In enabling them to present their own stories using their own 'unguided' language, it seemed to promise that a variety of responses would be explored. Unfortunately, it was obvious that the children were simply retelling their parents' stories. Rather than conceptualising the parties involved, they merely parroted an adult narrative. For example, when one child described donors as 'friendly men … who have spare seeds'.
In seeing how children created their apple-tree network of family, potential parents of donor-conceived children might better understand the fluid nature of family, accepting that their alternative family structure was not seen as wrong by their child, only uniquely their own.
But, frustratingly, the study was merely an anecdotal tool used as a means of presenting certain individual instances rather than creating any sort of broader framework or statistical model upon which claims could be proven or disproven.
Although she interviewed all the family members, in her talk Provoost only shares a few specific responses from the children. This seems to imply that all the children articulated the structure of their family in a similar way, as she does not indicate how common such responses were. I would have preferred it if she had grouped the interviews so that we could see what 'golden threads' or shared language might have run through the interviews.
As she approaches the end of her talk, Provoost seems to change the question from how kids understand the role of the donor to how parents might best deal with questions that donor-conceived children ask. While both questions are undoubtedly of interest, their combination within a 12-minute TED talk left me confused about her actual message.
By the end of the video, the only conclusion that Provoost advances is that when seeking to explain to a child how they came to be, it is a 'do-it-yourself' project – one in which the parent must decide what works in their own unique situation. So the original question, whether children see donors as part of the family, disappears. By focusing on the DIY approach, the conversation is no longer about how the children see their families, but how parents decide to share information about their conception with their children.
While I agree that there is no one answer that works for everyone and no single 'right way' to explain a donor conception to a child, I had hoped that this TED Talk might reveal a common language used by the children, one that parents could incorporate into their discussions. Unfortunately, by changing the question partway through, the only lesson the audience is left with is that parenting is hard – something which parents undoubtedly already know.