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Why we should welcome the conclusions of the Nuffield report on donor conception

29 April 2013
By Professor Carol Smart
Professor of sociology at the Morgan Centre, University of Manchester
Appeared 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.

Have your say about donor conception by taking just a few minutes of your time to complete the When It Takes More Than Two poll - click here.

2 June 2014 - by Petra Nordqvist 
How do genes and genetic relationships actually matter in the messy and complex world of everyday life? The event 'Do genes matter? Donor conception and family life' discussed genetic connections and family life from the legal, sociological and scientific points of view...
13 May 2013 - by Ben Saer 
The recent Nuffield report makes two disappointing recommendations - that anonymous donation should not be reintroduced, and that the state should encourage those who donated pre-2005 to come forward. Both positions are obstructive to donors, past and present...
29 April 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
In its latest contribution to practical bioethics and policymaking, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in its report on information sharing in donor conception recommends, among other things, that parents of donor-conceived children should not be mandated to inform them about their origins....
22 April 2013 - by Dr Wybo Dondorp 
The Nuffield Council report rightly rejects the call to pressurising parents into compliance, as this abstract ideal of openness disallows them to make their own moral judgements about what is best in their situation and for their family...
22 April 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recommended that parents of donor-conceived children are best placed to tell them about their biological origins, but should not be mandated to do so...
4 March 2013 - by Cait McDonagh 
Another full house for the final event of Progress Educational Trust's 'When it Takes More Than Two' series. This time attendees were invited to consider gamete donation from the perspective of the donor conceived...
4 March 2013 - by Dr Ruth Shidlo 
Once again, the voices of people and families conceived as a result of gamete donation in Israel are going unheeded...
Comment ( - 30/04/2013)
I think the division you talk about is a false dichotomy. I agree that identity is constructed from genes, biology, culture, history, place etc. but just because genetic inheritance is one factor among others that doesn't mean it isn't important. The implication is that as many donor-conceived people can't know their genetic inheritance they should scrape together an identity based on these other factors. Why? Why shouldn't donor-conceived people have what everybody else has (and takes for granted)?

Also I would like to point out that these factors are interrelated. As a donor-conceived person, what is my culture, my history, my place? Before finding out as an adult that I was donor-conceived I did my dad's family tree. I learned all about my dad's Scottish heritage, about his ancestors and the clans they were descended from and the places they lived in and the military, religious and cultural institutions that were a big part of their lives. I discovered I was donor-conceived just before I was due to go on a fact-finding visit to Scotland to learn more. Now I'm half a person with half a history that comes from nowhere in particular.

I honestly believe I had a right to know. Think about it - not knowing who your parents's a terrible thing, even if you don't know you don't know. That's why parents should be forced to tell. I don't have a lot of sympathy for those who can't get it together to do so.
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