Raising a brood of IVF commodities

Knowing the identity of their biological parents gives children a sense of who they are.

IS IT right for doctors to create embryos from donor eggs and sperm for random donation to infertile couples? Should couples with ``spare‘’ embryos left over from successful IVF treatment ``donate’’ them to couples still trying for a baby?

Arguments against such practices are usually grounded in conservative, often religious ideas about how babies ought to be made: by married couples engaging in ``natural’’ acts of intercourse that may – God willing – result in conception.

For religious conservatives, the problem with embryo adoption is part and parcel of the problem with pre-marital sex, contraception, and infertility treatments such as IVF: the division of sex, marriage and procreation into separable and interchangeable parts.

But conservative ideas about family formation and the role of the Almighty in human generation are not de rigueur for those opposed to embryo adoption. Embryo adoption can, and in my view should, be opposed because of the critical role biology plays in our society in creating a child’s sense of who they are, where they belong, and why they matter.

Since the industrial revolution, when all rights and responsibilities for children – as well as children themselves – were placed in the hands of the nuclear family, biology has played a fundamental role in children’s understandings of who they are and where they belong.

When Margaret Thatcher announced ``there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families’’, she signalled the rise of economic rationalism as the dominant Western economic and social paradigm.

An economically rational society is an itinerant and isolating one that espouses values that are the antithesis of those that bind individuals together. Extended families and local communities disintegrate in the absence of values such as trust, interdependence and responsibility, forfeiting their historical participation in the establishment of children’s knowledge of self and place.

In such individualistic societies, it is largely children’s biological parents who are able to give children a sense of continuity: an understanding of who they are in relation to all those who have come before them. It is this social fact that partially explains why so many children and adults have found the experience of being adopted so traumatic.

Recently, the first children born from anonymous sperm donations have begun telling similar stories of social dislocation and not belonging. Like those who have been adopted, these young people see the search for their biological parent/s as a critical step in discovering their ``true’’ identity.

There is little doubt that that those adopted or conceived from anonymous sperm donation feel deprived in large part because most of the people in the world are raised by their ``own’’ parents. But this is precisely the point. The deprivation suffered by many adopted children and the children of anonymous sperm donors is profoundly social in nature.

It is because – and only because – children lack a sense of belonging to a community from which they could draw a sense of self and place, that voluntarily creating more children who will suffer this deprivation becomes ethically dubious.

ABC-TV’s Australian Story recently aired a program about a young woman who has continuing contact with the couple who adopted her baby. The child knows and loves his biological mother and, as he grows, will be told the circumstances that led her to relinquish him. By allowing the young woman to have an ongoing relationship with her biological child, such ``open’’ adoption procedures may go a long way towards minimising the distress adoption has caused in the past to both relinquishing mothers and adopted children.

But providing ways for the relatively few children placed for adoption each year in Australia to maintain contact with their biological parents is a far cry from deliberately creating such children through the practice of creating and/or adopting embryos. While any child conceived from donated eggs or sperm has the right, on their 18th birthday, to full identifying information about their biological parents, such legislation falls far short of adequately compensating children for their loss.

As numerous adult adoptees reveal, it is the non-deliberate nature of their conception that made the loss they had suffered as a result of their adoption easier to bear. No one had meant any harm. But if the child knows they were intentionally conceived in order to be ``donated‘’ by the infertility specialist, or donated by their biological parents to another infertile couple, all bets are off. Such children, worries one adult raised by adoptive parents, may wind up feeling like ``a commodity, a powerless pawn at the disposal’’ of the specialist, their biological parents, or both.

As my research into women’s views of abortion showed, all solutions to an unwanted pregnancy – be it abortion, adoption or keeping the baby – involve pain. But unwanted pregnancies do happen, and for the few women who choose to resolve them by opting for adoption, open adoptions seem the way to go.

But better still would be to refuse to conceive and/or ``donate’’ those always intended to be raised by their non-biological parents. What possible defence will we give – when such children come knocking on our doors in 18 years time – for failing to do so?