Alison Motluk is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who publishes HeyReprotech, a newsletter about the ripples caused by assisted reproduction.
As you drop your dad’s card into the mailbox, or dial him for a quick chat, or arrange a little get-together to mark the day, spare a thought for the people who will find this Father’s Day agonizing.
Spare a thought for the 35-year-old who just discovered, earlier this year, after getting a home DNA kit as a holiday gift, that the man they’ve always known and loved as their father is not in fact their biological father.
This person doesn’t know how to tell their dad that they know this fact, and so they haven’t, yet. They are filled with dread. They are worried it will somehow bubble up in conversation, or be revealed in some non-verbal way, before they’re ready to cope. They are praying everything can be normal, for just one more year.
They don’t want to hurt their dad – the father who raised them – or the mother who kept the secret alongside him. They love their dad and mom intensely, but still look in the mirror these days and find themselves wondering where those ears came from, or that smirk, or that interest in the planets that no one else in the family seems to share. Is it from the bio-dad’s side, maybe?
The intense love is juxtaposed with intense anger: Their parents lied to them their entire life. How can they move forward from this?
So they are dreading Father’s Day.
Spare a thought for the person right now wondering to themselves: Exactly how do I approach this other man? This “sperm donor”? After feverish trawls through long lists of DNA cousins and with the help of an amateur genealogist on Facebook, they have managed to figure out the identity of this “anonymous” man.
Now what? Do they write him a letter and mail it? Do they e-mail him? Do they phone? Drop by unannounced? Do they do nothing?
Will the man be shocked? Will he reply? Will he even remember that he donated sperm way back when? Will this contact ruin his life? They absolutely don’t want to ruin the man’s life. They just want to meet him. They just want to know who he is. They just want to know if meeting him and knowing who he is will answer any questions, will make them feel more whole.
Spare a thought for the people who have already taken the plunge and approached the man. Some of them were rejected outright. They sit here today knowing they’ll never be able to know more than they know right now, which frankly isn’t much. They are trying to make peace with that. “Do not write me again,” the response said. And they will not.
Others were outright ignored. Think of them today too.
Still others heard from his family that he was “such a great guy” and “he would have loved you!” But he’s already dead.
They grieve. The ones who learned their biological father is dead now know for certain they will never meet him. That option is gone, extinguished instantly after decades of longing and hoping. Now, they can only ever know him through others.
But the grieving is quiet, private. It has to be, because most people don’t get it. “You never even knew him!” “How can you feel loss about something you never had?”
But this type of grief is not mysterious.
In the infertility world in particular, many people grieve for things they never had. Children they were unable to conceive. Children lost to miscarriage. Entire families that will not be theirs.
So too are we expert at understanding grief for lost biological fathers – in other contexts. If this person’s actual father had simply died before their birth, for instance, we’d instinctively feel sorry for them. “Poor kid will never know his dad!” “What a tragedy!”
Even if their actual dad had absconded, we’d wring out some empathy for the child. “No kid deserves that!” “How awful to be abandoned that way!”
If they had been adopted, and had later sought out the birth father, only to find the man had died, we’d understand what it might feel like to embark on a journey that can never reach its destination. We’d be sad for them.
But people born through sperm donation are not permitted ordinary feelings of grief. Their grief is seen as somehow ridiculous.
“Why are they obsessing about him?” “It’s bodily fluid.” “He was never anything to you,” they are told, “and you were always nothing to him.”
So they grieve silently, covertly, uncertainly.
Because not only is their grief somehow not warranted, it’s offensive. It’s a stab at their parents’ hearts. Their parents did not choose to be infertile. They did not choose to be single. They did not choose to be gay.
Shouldn’t the children just be happy they were born? They were wanted. They are loved.
And it’s true. They were wanted. They are loved.
They were raised by people who loved them. But they had not had the chance to be raised by their own genetic parents – what one of the men described as “40 years gone” – and had been deprived of the knowledge about the switch.
We all intuitively understood the injustice done to them.
But why is it wrong when it happens in a hospital by accident, but okay when doctors are paid to do it on purpose?
The answer is: it’s not.
In fact, it’s somehow even more egregious when it’s deliberate, when other people – doctors, nurses, lawyers, parents – know this detail about a person, and actively conceal it, even while the person themselves cannot discover it.
In trying to help one group of people with their grief – over not being able to have children – we have created new grief that takes its place.
And unlike in the accidental switches, with donor conception, our laws actually perpetuate the harm. We are complicit.
Take birth certificates. You may think a person would be able to turn to this document as an accurate record of their origin, but you would be wrong. If a sperm donor was used, not only will the biological parent’s identity or donor number not be noted, there will be absolutely no trace of the fact that it ever happened.
It’s not like the state is shy about asking things. We demand all sorts of information – the date, time and place of birth; the weight and length at birth; the number of days spent in the womb, and whether it was shared, and even how many pregnancies preceded them in that womb. It’s a criminal offence to not provide this information. No, we choose not to record the existence of biological parents who are different from legal parents.
We call these details about a birth “vital statistics.” And they are vital, both to understand our society’s characteristics, and for individuals to understand themselves. Yet Canadian provinces aid and abet their inaccuracy.
It’s time for honest birth certificates.
Our federal law, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, also perpetuates the harm. It continues to allow, even favour, anonymity.
Slowly but surely, other jurisdictions are moving away from that. In 2005, just one year after our law was passed, Britain started requiring donors to be identified to the people subsequently born through their donations. All births are tracked through a central registry and all people born this way have the right to know. Australia and New Zealand also ban anonymity, as do several European countries. Earlier this month, the state of Colorado banned it too.
It’s time for Canada to end donor anonymity as well.
Donor-conceived people are often castigated for placing too much emphasis on genetics. “Genetics does not make a family.” That is certainly true. But even if we don’t know exactly what genetics means to us, we know it means something.
We know that from stories from adoptees.
We know that from our obsession with genealogy.
We know that from the widespread interest in genetic testing.
We know it too because often the very people who insist that genetics should not matter to donor offspring chose donor insemination over adoption because they want to be “genetically related” to their child.
We know that because often those same genetics-does-not-make-a-family folks pick the same donor for their multiple children so those children can be “genetically related” to each other. Sometimes when two women in a lesbian couple each conceive and carry a child, they choose the same donor to help unite the children, through genetics.
Genetics has no meaning – until it does.
Even sperm banks are coming around. There are now new lines of donors: “ID release,” “Open identity,” “Willing-to-be-known.” Some plans promise at least one contact, some promise a name, some just promise to send a letter to the man’s last known address. The point, though, is that the industry is beginning to recognize that a lot of people want to know about the man behind the sperm.
The person born through donor insemination is just as genetically related to the “sperm donor” as they are to their mother. The “sperm donor” is just as genetically related to this donor offspring as he is to his own children.
Genetics may not be everything, but it is not nothing.
Still, spare a thought for the man who raised this person. The dad dad. The man who, more than anyone, suffered under the burden of this secret. The man who loved this child and in every way treated this child as his own genetic offspring – because while genetics is not nothing, it is certainly not everything.
It’s not that there aren’t lots of happy stories – there are. Many people born through donor conception and who know about it really are fine with it. Their parents are their parents and that’s that. They love them; end of story.
For some donor-conceived people, it’s just part of their identity: They have known this fact about themselves since they were born. Single and gay parents have helped make honesty the norm rather than the exception. Many parents these days just accept the complex feelings of people conceived this way, and they support them whatever they choose to do.
Many donor-conceived people who decide to search are now able to find. It can take years. A decade, even. And that’s not really fair. But afterward, some are welcomed with open arms by their paternal biological families. “I always wondered about you” and “I always hoped you’d track me down” and even: “Look, you have the family nose!” There is relief, joy, sometimes closure.
Maybe they meet again, maybe not.
Others meet regularly, they talk on the phone, they share holidays. There are graduations and weddings. They get a whole new family to be part of, and to love.
But spare a thought for the other natural offspring of that same bio-dad, especially the eldest son, who may now feel displaced. Now there are half a dozen other “sons” – older than him – and his dad is suddenly very interested in them. There are now so many chips off that old block.
This person’s reality was reconfigured too. He may feel emotionally woozy. He may feel resentful. His dad didn’t mention his donor past to his own family, because he was assured it would be secret. Men who are “open ID,” who know the fact will come out eventually, have more incentive to tell.
Some donor offspring have built whole new kinds of extended families through their shared biological connection to the donor. They have their own Facebook groups, they have huge “donor family” reunions.
But there are unique complications there too. Many people think 18 is too old to learn the identity. What if one wants to search now but another wants to wait? What if one wants to go public and another to stay private? What if the donor only has room in his heart for a few of the donor offspring, the first few, and then he closes the door? Then he asks the one he knows not to tell the others he’s been found? What then?
Spare a gentle thought for the men out there who are biological fathers through sperm donation.
Some really didn’t understand what they were getting into. Many were young – in their very early twenties, still kids themselves really. Many needed money, and allowed themselves to be convinced that this was an easy way to get it. “Beer money!” “Get paid for doing something you’d be doing anyway!”
They were not counselled. They were not encouraged to think about the fact that they’d be creating actual people, who would some day be adults and maybe curious about them. They were not encouraged to think about what this might mean for their future wife, their future children or their future selves. In most cases, they were not encouraged to think much about it at all.
They were assured it would all be anonymous. If there were any records, they would soon be destroyed. No one would ever know.
But things changed. It’s now a world of home genetic testing, genetic databases and facial recognition technology, and there is simply no way for a sperm donor to remain forever unknown to an offspring who is searching. Any clinic or sperm bank claiming otherwise is lying.
So spare a thought for the former sperm donor who just got an e-mail out of the blue. He hasn’t responded yet, because he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know how to tell his wife. He doesn’t know how to tell his children. He doesn’t know how to tell his parents, his siblings.
He worries that it could all go public. He wonders if his colleagues at work might find out, or his clients, or his neighbours, and if they did, how would they react? Is this going to ruin his life? He hopes things can stay normal, for just one more year.
He’s dreading Father’s Day.
He knows he’s not these people’s father, but he’s not sure what he is. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to be. He doesn’t want to mess things up.
Or maybe he has responded. Maybe he just hit reply. He doesn’t know what it will mean, or how it will all turn out, but he’s done it. The kid who wrote him is exactly the age he was when he donated. He couldn’t not reply.
Or maybe he replied weeks ago. He was almost giddy. There was this person out there who wanted to know him. He was okay with that. He’d never been asked if he’d wanted to be known, but if he had been, he’d have said yes.
But spare a thought for the former sperm donor who just learned that there’s not just one or five or 10 people out there who want to know all about him, but 50. One hundred. Two hundred. Maybe more.
It’s not that he’s not interested in these people, but there are a lot of them.
It won’t be the easiest Father’s Day. He’s angry about doctors misleading him about numbers. He’s angry no one warned him. He’s angry he didn’t think things through. Everything would have been easier without secrets and lies.
But here we are. He’s just hoping for the best, while we figure out how to do better.
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