A creation myth for the 21st century

Did anyone ever ask IVF children whether they wanted to go through life as genetic orphans?
Lea Singh | Jan 9 2009 | comment  



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This month, a court in British Columbia, Canada is expected to certify an important class action that was launched near the end of last year by a gutsy 26-year-old journalist. Her name is Olivia Pratten, and her lawsuit is likely to become a major thorn in the side of the booming fertility industry. Olivia was conceived with the sperm of an anonymous donor, and she is supposed to not care about her genetic origins -- after all, she was wanted and loved by her "intended" parents. But Olivia compares herself to adopted children, and like them, she wants the law to recognize her right to information about her biological parent.

Many people are still surprised to learn of the scale of the donor-gamete business. Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, was only born in 1978. How much could have happened in just 30 years? Let's put it this way – the growth of reproductive technologies has been not linear, but exponential. In 2006, Harvard Business School Professor Deborah Spar estimated the worth of the fertility industry at US$3 billion in the US alone.

IVF has become a beacon of hope for many infertile couples who could not otherwise have their own biological children. What can compete with the powerful pain of infertility, combined with the desperate desire for parenthood? Regardless of its cost, and despite a success rate of only about 30 percent, couples have been willing to pay for IVF, even if it means remortgaging the house or racking up credit card debt. And IVF has opened the door to still other possibilities, especially the use of egg donors and surrogate mothers, the genetic screening of embryos, and recently, the creation of embryos with the sperm of infertile men (ICSI, a technique known to transfer infertility to the resulting male children).

The use of donor sperm was of course possible before IVF, and artificial insemination was practised to some extent even before Louise Brown came along -– but the practice really took off with the IVF boom. It has now become a gigantic industry, where profit-driven sperm banks compete in marketing paid "donors" -– and not just to infertile couples: the world's largest sperm bank, the California Cryobank, reports that over 30 percent of its clients are single women and a growing proportion are lesbian couples. Just visit their website to order from an incredible selection of donors described by physical features, occupation and education, sports inclinations, interests and personality tests, baby photos, personal essays, and even handwriting analysis and audio interviews. And for many fertility businesses, the higher the caliber of the donors, the higher the price.

Like a religion, the whole donor-conception industry is undergirded by a central creation myth. The industry cannot stand without faith in this central tenet: that biological parenthood is irrelevant, and that "social" parenthood is what matters for children's full emotional and psychological development. The theme of every sperm bank and egg donor agency is effectively the Beatles song "All you need is love." Needless to say, many infertile couples are only too happy to sing along and accept this claim at face value. Few reflect on the paradox that they clearly want a biological connection while denying its importance for their children. In effect, the industry heals the parents at the children's expense, by giving them their own genetic children while depriving these children of a biological parent.

Back to Olivia Pratten. According to the creation myth of the fertility industry, Olivia should not give a hoot about her anonymous sperm donor. She is one of those very special donor-conception children who was very deeply wanted and loved by her "intended" parents. For her, the anonymous donor should be on par with a nice blood donor who once donated blood to her parents – barely anything to do with her, right?

And yet, Olivia is disturbing the peace and challenging the creation myth. She insists that her sperm donor is important to her, and she speaks of the "psychological distress" she has suffered at not knowing her biological history, including what race, culture, and religion her biological father may have come from. In 2001, she went to the Canadian Parliament and told the Standing Committee on Health: "the genetic tie that I share with my biological father cannot be minimized or made to disappear. I carry it with me. It is visible in who I am and what I will be…. I'm always left pondering, trying to put the pieces together of who this man was and how this relates to who I am today. If I could somehow know who he was…everything I already know about myself would be put into a different context, and I believe my perception of things would be altered."

Olivia's voice is not the only one speaking out these days. The blogosphere is filling up with young people from around the world, conceived with the aid of reproductive technologies and crying out in pain. One Australian young man writes on his blog, Donated Generation: "Nothing can fix the sorrow I feel for my own loss and the loss experienced by other donor conceived children." A young American woman writes on Confessions of a Cryokid: "One tries to argue that having a social father makes up for the lack of genetic attachment, but it doesn't." And in a powerful cry, a young Australian woman writes on her blog, Umbilically Challenged:

"I am very sad today, with a grief that is not talked about. It is not allowed. Because I had two loving parents. I am not granted asylum. I am not allowed reprieve. Well... what…are you complainin' about ?? You got everything you wanted. You had so many presents at Christmas and your birthday that it was supposed to buy your happiness. You were supposed to forget about your mother. You had everything. Why would you want more? WE GAVE YOU EVERYTHING. I had everything... everything but my mother. You just can't fix that. Sorry."

How has the fertility industry responded to these cries of pain? Olivia and others have been accused of being "ungrateful" for their creation. They have been asked, would they rather not have been born? A rather shocking but frank answer was given by 23-year-old Tom Ellis, a donor-conceived man who wrote in a British newspaper: "I have done a Master's degree at Cambridge and am reasonably successful, but it doesn't make me feel any better about not knowing who I am... I don't think I should have been born. I can't compare living under these conditions and not living at all, but nobody should ever be created under these circumstances... I feel like a tree that has half of its roots missing. And without them, I can hardly stand up."

Voices like these will keep on coming, as donor conception becomes ever more popular. In fact, for the first time in history, our society is engaged in a massive re-definition of the family that rejects its most natural and fundamental basis, genetic connection. The Beatles expressed the mantra not only of the fertility industry, but also of our increasingly utilitarian society as a whole. More and more children are being taught that "love" is what makes a family. This is true especially in countries like Canada , which have already legalized same-sex marriage. To ensure that such unions are equal to heterosexual marriages, it is necessary to open up a way for them to create progeny – and when it comes to reproduction, such unions are largely dependent on the fertility industry. But if children are to have two mommies or two daddies, it also means that they will be separated from at least one of their biological parents, who is not part of the same-sex union. The myth requires us to believe that these other parents will not matter to the child.

If love is all you need to create a family, and if two mommies and two daddies are just as good as one of each, then what about other combinations? Today, single women and even single men are increasingly resorting to the fertility industry to have children without waiting for a suitable partner. Having a child is now only as difficult as buying a book on Amazon.com. No father need apply -- just order the sperm online.

On the other end of the scale, the highest court in the Canadian province of Ontario ruled in 2007 that a child can have three legal parents: the lesbian mother, her partner, and the sperm donor father whom the lesbians wanted to keep involved with the child. But if three legal parents, why not four or five? Certainly, a child could now have up to five "parents" of sorts -– the "intended" couple, the egg and sperm donors, and a surrogate to carry the baby to term.

What's happened is that children have become a commodity. Every movie star is entitled to a Chihuahua, and every adult is now entitled to a child. Though perhaps it started with the right not to have a child, by destroying the undesirables through abortion. The other shoe has now dropped, and we have added the right to have a child at almost any cost.

And to fill in the picture, we also increasingly have the right to choose the kind of child we will have. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) allows parents to select only embryos without genetic predispositions to various genetic diseases. For instance, recently for the first time the UK allowed parents to use PGD to select only embryos that will not carry a genetic predisposition to breast cancer – and to discard embryos that have the gene, even though they have a 20-50 percent chance of never having breast cancer at all. PGD has also been used by midget parents to have midget children, and by deaf parents to have deaf children. And of course, parents have used PGD to select "savior siblings" whose tissues may be used after birth to cure their ill brothers or sisters.

Who will stop the madness? Perhaps only a rising tide of the children themselves. In a "me first" society, adults seem too busy pursuing their own desires to care much for their children's rights and needs. But through lawsuits like the one started by Olivia Pratten, the children are forcing adults and governments to take notice. The myth that "love is all you need" needs to fall, and it might take the children themselves to cut it down, through their own bitter testimony and experience.

Lea Singh graduated from Harvard Law School in 2003. She works for a nonprofit organization in Ottawa, Canada.



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