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The ethics of sperm donation

22 June 2009
By Professor John Milbank
Centre of Theology and Philosophy, University of Nottingham
Appeared in BioNews 513
Should donators of sperm remain anonymous? Some people say yes, others say no. But most assume that the argument is in principle resolvable if we can apply the right principles in relation to accurate evidence.

But supposing it isn't? Supposing the argument is demonstrably irresolvable? Supposing that here we come up against an ethical impasse: an example of what the ancient Greeks called 'aporia', when either way to go is equally impossible? What would that imply?

I shall return to the last question presently. To begin with I want to argue that this argument indeed issues in an 'aporia'.

On the one hand, sperm donors should remain anonymous. This is because they would otherwise become personally connected with a situation with which they should not really be personally connected. For even if the donor is known to the recipient he has not been selected as a friend, but as someone whose sperm is instrumentally useful - likely to be healthy, genetically reliable and so forth. His sperm supplies a material lack either within a personal relationship or for an individual woman. Hence disclosure implies a meaningful connection which is inappropriate. To the male partner in an unfertile relationship the donor must then inevitably appear as a kind of virtual adulterer. Equally, for the offspring of sperm donation, affection will naturally reach out towards the biological father, even though he has no intention of establishing a social relationship of paternity. Hence the properly instrumental function is subverted with inevitably ensuing suspicions and rivalries between male partners and male donors that can be catastrophically damaging for family relationships. One might say that these are natural rivalries artificially induced.

On the other hand, sperm donors should not remain anonymous.

A child has every right to know the identity of his/her natural parents.

Any other view would render biology irrelevant to our sense of who we are, which would be an ironic conclusion in the light of our modern knowledge of genetics. Quite apart from the medical importance of knowing one's genetic inheritance, our sense of identity requires us to relate to our natural forebears as well as to our cultural forebears. We need to make sense of both sets of influences, because only an unwarranted dogmatism would deny that both are equally important.

Therefore disclosure is wrong and non-disclosure is equally wrong. Above all, both courses of action are potentially of equal damage for offspring. A further aporia results from the question of whether a child should be told the artificial circumstances of their birth or not. Again, they have a right to know their natural origin and yet one can also claim that the knowledge that personal and natural union have here been divided is inherently disturbing. No such division occurs in the case of adoption and the common idea that this provides is a parallel shows an inability to think clearly in the ethical field.

So what does it mean when a proposed course of action leaves one with two equally unacceptable choices? Does it mean that one should throw a dice or leave choices to individuals? No, it is rather a sign that the proposed action is wrong in the sense of being practically-speaking incoherent or irrational.

For on either side of the aporia the problem is the separation of the interpersonal from the natural. This denies our strange hybrid nature as specifically rational animals. Whatever science may say, this is how in practice we have hitherto regarded ourselves. This is what makes us human.

We stop being human if down one fork we deny our rational power of choice or down the other we deny our animality. Thus in relation to reproduction we only remain human when sex and procreation and so love and sex - even the love of a one-night stand - are held together. Then and then only we can say to ourselves that our very animality is the result of an interpersonal choice. Clearly, of course, this can only be a heterosexual choice, not because homosexual relations are wrong (I would not argue this) but because they cannot naturally issue in procreation.

Therefore one should welcome the fact that few men are prepared to donate their sperm. Implicitly they are following the correct line of practical reasoning which I have just sketched by not randomly dispersing their seed as if they thought of women like mere terrain.

To medicalise and sociologise this reluctance is to surrender to market and state infiltration into the very heart of human intimacy. It is to go along with the commodification and bureaucratisation of human reproduction.

It is to promote a fascistic mass control of human biology which alienates the 'rational' side of our animality to science and reduces the animal side to that of nature in general. Under the illusion of an impossible 'choice' that we should not be granted, the power of human reproduction is gradually removed from the free control of human beings in relationship.

That, of course, is what has already happened in the field of production in general. For capitalism, as for technocratic science and bureaucracy, ordinary parents and families are like peasant proprietors and smallholdings. Eventually, of course, their function must be abolished as inefficient, unreliable, uncontrolled and likely to yield too many 'poor crops'. Only naivety of the direst kind would fail to realise that the secret, usually unconscious aim of practices of surrogate birth is to legitimate only technologised, artificial reproduction removed from the scope of human inter-relationship, which is to say, removed from the scope of human love.

Let us salute then, the reluctant. May they long hold out against the liberal elites - both those who know too well whither they tend, and the vast majority who, in their folly, do not.

29 October 2012 - by Petra Nordqvist 
Assisted conception gives rise to some truly fascinating questions about human reproduction. Conception enabled through donated sperm, eggs, embryos and surrogacy, in particular, open up a vast number of new possibilities...
3 September 2012 - by Dr Victoria Burchell 
A woman has called for legal changes to prevent a man from donating his sperm without his wife's consent....
25 June 2012 - by Rose Palmer 
Two children of a lesbian couple are due to receive £70,000 compensation from the NHS after a mistake led to the death of their sperm donor father. The man was also the nephew of one of the women...
19 July 2010 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy 
A gene crucial for sperm production in humans is also needed to make sperm in many other animals including mice, sea urchins, flies and worms, scientists in Chicago, US, have discovered...
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