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'My life was a lie': What does Emma Cresswell's story tell us about donor conception and fatherhood?

1 September 2014
By Dr Jonathan Ives
Senior lecturer in bioethics, University of Birmingham
Appeared in BioNews 769

The Telegraph has reported the story of Emma Cresswell, a donor-conceived woman who successfully applied to have a new birth certificate issued to reflect her view that she is fatherless. Cresswell 'fought a six-year battle to have the man she thought was her father removed from her birth certificate' and now reportedly hopes that others will follow her example.

She reportedly discovered she was donor-conceived during an argument with the man she believed to be her biological father (Mr Faint), from whom she had been estranged for most of her early childhood after he and her mother separated.

This story raises several questions about, for example, the nature of fatherhood, the function of the birth certificate, personal identity, and the importance of telling donor-conceived children about their origins. In this brief article I will quickly unpick some of Cresswell's and the story's central assumptions.

First, the claim that the new birth certificate now tells the 'truth' about Miss Cresswell's father (i.e. that she is fatherless) seems quite bizarre. On most accounts of fatherhood Cresswell does have a father - only who her father is will depend on what account of fatherhood we use.

If 'father' means 'genetic progenitor', then the sperm donor is Cresswell's father. If 'father' means the man who accepted that role, then her father at the time of her birth was Faint, which is what the birth certificate recorded. If 'father' means the man who actually played a role in raising her then, again, Faint would fit the bill - although arguably he may not have been a good father in this regard, having reportedly been absent for a large proportion of her early life.

If we are to take Cresswell's claim that she does not have a father seriously, then we must accept that the following conditions are necessary for a man to be considered a father: he must have (a) provided the genetic material, (b) accepted paternal responsibility and (c) raised the child. On this account, all donor-conceived children, all adopted children and any child whose father dies in its early infancy is, and always will be, fatherless. This seems like an awful lot to swallow. It seems plausible that any one of those criteria might alone be sufficient to make a man a father.

Second, Cresswell suggests that every child should be issued with a two-page birth certificate - one to record the people who are legally responsible for the child and the other to record whether they were conceived 'naturally'. The latter would be to tell all donor-conceived children that they were donor conceived, so that they could then search for their 'donor father' when they turn 18.

The question of donor-conceived children having a right to know is too big to deal with here (see this article for some of my views) but what is interesting is that even if such a two-page certificate were issued for Cresswell, Faint would still have been registered as her father. The two-page birth certificate would have ensured she found about her donor-conceived status as a matter of course, but it would not have recorded the 'truth' about her father as she sees it.

If the 'truth' is that she has no father, then what she ought to be suggesting is that donor-conceived children are registered as fatherless (having no legal father), because neither the donor, nor the man presenting for treatment with the mother, would fulfil the three criteria she appears to think necessary for fatherhood.

This was undoubtedly a very personal decision for Emma Cresswell, and I have no intention of criticising her for it. She found out about the circumstances of her conception in a less than optimal way, and she has taken action that allows her to reconcile what she felt to be a threat to her sense of self.

But that is exactly the point. It is a personal decision, and her actions are more a statement about her relationship with Faint, and to finding out the way she did, than a statement about how we should deal with donor conception and fatherhood in general.

Hard cases make bad law, as the saying goes, and the fact that Cresswell felt it necessary to respond in this way gives us no reason to think that others ought to respond similarly (as she appears to suggest), nor that policy ought to change.

It may well be that Cresswell is now fatherless - she no longer has a man in her life who plays the role of a father. That is, however, a product of her relationship with that man, rather than her donor-conceived status.

Whether or not her relationship with Faint was in some way affected from the start by the fact that they were not genetically related is a moot point - but even genetically related children and parents can become estranged, for a variety of reasons.

My view is that this is a sad and powerful story about a daughter and a father becoming estranged – a family break-up. It is not an edifying lesson on donor conception. There are some good arguments for children being told the circumstances of their conception – but this story does not provide one, and the message it gives about what fatherhood is, and ought to be, is at best bizarre.

1 September 2015 - by Dr Berenice Golding 
Drawing upon professional and personal perspectives, this book renders visible some of the hidden issues that prevail when donor conception is used to build a family...
1 December 2014 - by Dr Ëlo Luik 
An informative and encouraging view into becoming a family through donor conception - the Donor Conception (DC) Network way...
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...
29 April 2013 - by Professor Eric Blyth 
Donor-conceived individuals might justifiably feel short-changed by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report 'Donor conception: ethical aspects of information sharing'...
31 October 2011 - by Dr Lux Fatimathas 
Increasing numbers of Israeli children with birth defects are suing medical professionals for failing to detect abnormalities and allowing them to be born, says the New Scientist. The magazine reports that such is the Israeli Government's concern over the rise in 'wrongful life' lawsuits it has launched an investigation into the validity of the claims....
25 August 2005 - by Professor Heather Draper and Dr Jonathan Ives 
The recent finding by a research team at Liverpool John Moores University, that one in 25 men may be raising children to whom they are not genetically related, has given rise to number of newspaper articles claiming 'One in 25 fathers 'not the daddy''. It might be argued that a...
This article twists the facts ( - 01/09/2014)
The author of this article twists the facts.  She does not put forth that she's fatherless.  Nobody is fatherless.  What she's saying is that it's better to put nobody at all on your birth certificate if its not the right person.  How dare anyone put the name of an unrelated individual down as her father on her birth record!  It's her medical record for Pete sake!  She'd better be the offspring of the individuals named parents on her birth record otherwise the document is falsified and a lie!

The department of health services relies upon the names on a birth record to be the biological parents right?  I mean they do all kinds of medical research on heritable disease based on the content of the birth certificate.  The public has the right to rely upon the content of their birth records to the same extent the government does. Tell you what if the birth certificate is not supposed to be a record of biological parenthood then lets stop all the medical research on birth defects and lets stop all financial support to children based upon results of paternity tests.

This is not an issue of whether or not an unrelated individual can care for another person's child.  This is an issue of personal accountability for ones own offspring.
Comment ( - 02/09/2014)
Jonathon Ives may think the truth unworthy of accurate recording on birth registration but many adopted persons/donor conceived persons have a different view.  They live with the consequences of conception deception and know how damaging they can be.
I am an older adoptee (b.1945) and learned a few years ago (through DNA testing) that my unknown father and his kin (who are also my kin) are Jewish.  This precious knowledge had been concealed from me until the DNA revolution made the truth accessible.  It is a small miracle that I have lived long enough to establish this hidden truth about my genealogical identity.

Ova/sperm convey the genealogical history of the life that is created. Sperm is not merely a fertilising agent; nor does its history belong exclusively to the man who 'donated' it to another person/s.
Similarly ova contains the history of the woman (and her antecedents); racial, social and medical.
Dr. Ives has no basis to make this assumption ( - 05/09/2014)
Dr. Ives has no basis to make the assumption that Emma Cresswell's primary motivation to change her birth certificate to reflect her genetic Truth, is only a matter of 'social father rejection'.  If Dr. Ives has been closely following the 'donor' conceived issues, advocacy and debate he should be familiar with the IDOA (International Donor Offspring Alliance) and it's summary of aims:

"Summary of Aims

We assert that people have a moral right to know the truth about their personal history. Where the state has custody of relevant information it has a duty not to collude in deceiving or depriving individuals of such information.
It follows that:
*The truth about a donor-conceived person's genetic and social parentage should be recorded on their relevant public documentation.
*In the normal course of events of life it should be impossible for a donor-conceived person to fail to find out that they are donor-conceived.
*The principal legal instrumentality of this should be the person's birth certificate, which should make it clear that donor conception has taken place. The genetic parentage should be recorded on the certificate itself or associated documentation available to the donor-conceived person concerned."

Read more (remove spaces to link):
http : //www .i doalliance . org/"

Dr. Ives and everyone reading and/or interested in these issues, should also be aware of another 'donor' conceived's attempt to change his birth certificate to 'father unknown'.  He did not experience, 'social father rejection'.  He makes his motives and reasoning very clear in this recent article "Father 'unknown': SA donor conceived man applies to change birth certificate" (remove spaces to link): http : // www . abc . net . au/worldtoday/content/2014/s4080863 . htm

This is an international human dignity and rights and Truth issue. Not a 'social father' rejection issue.  Look beyond finding superficial, overly simplistic, shaming, justification, arguments to support this practice as it stands.  Change is coming.  It simply cannot continue with out it.
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