This is the printer-friendly layout. Click here to find the online format.
Who Am I? Experiences of Donor Conception
foreword and afterword by Dr. Alexina McWhinnie
Idreos Education Trust, 2006
(72 pages, $12.95, paperback)
reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
This little but groundbreaking book gives us the life histories, in their own words, of three women who were conceived by anonymous donor insemination (DI) and lament that they were deliberately kept in the dark about their natural father’s identity and his family history.
In her afterword, Alexina McWhinnie, research fellow in Social Work and Law at the University of Dundee, notes that DI was first used in animal husbandry and then used with humans on the assumption it would prove equally “problem-free.” This turned out not to be the case.
Joanna Rose won a major court battle in 2002, when the judges decided that donor offspring had the right to know their genetic father. With the guarantee of anonymity removed, the stock of donated sperm suddenly fell to an all-time low. Evidently, paid gamete-donors feared being tracked down as fathers.
DI, writes Rose, who is pursuing a doctorate on the ethical issues the technology raises, was first brought in “by stealth, in the face of public opposition, as a secret practice, and then it uncloaked itself and demanded acceptance on the basis that it existed and is expected by some.” She was “one of the guinea-pigs” of this technology, lamenting that she was “made to order” and “objectified as something to which someone else had a right.”
As is usual in such cases, her birth certificate was falsified to hide the manner of her conception. When she found out the truth at age 22, she began to search for her father and discovered that he had been a student who regarded “his reproductive material as on a par with blood to be donated” and had likely fathered up to 300 children.
DI, she notes, involves a double standard. The infertile want to have “genetic continuity,” yet expect the children they make to have “minimal regard for their own genetic continuity.” The infertile thus intentionally create an “underclass” who are intended to “serve the utility and desires of others.”
If the offspring complain, they are told they should be grateful to exist. Nine out of ten children produced by DI are never told about their origin. Yet long before she knew the truth, Rose says she experienced what she calls “genetic bewilderment,” in that she realized she had nothing in common with her “social father.” Her experience is all too common among those conceived by DI.
Christine Whipp, who has been married for thirty years and has two daughters and five grandsons, sensed from the start that her “life was misplaced.” Her mother was at first “critical and controlling” and later openly hostile. Whipp now realizes that her behavior “stemmed directly from the way that she related to me as an acquisition.”
Whipp went public in the mid-1990s to urge openness about the identities of fathers of DI offspring, hoping her own father would come forward. She did not expect the hostility and derision of the “pro-donor gamete lobby.”
She linked up with other DI offspring around the globe and from them discovered that divorce is commonplace in families built by assisted conception. At one convention in Australia, only two of nineteen DI offspring had parents who had stayed married.
The third writer, Louise Jamieson, was 32 when her mother revealed to her that she was donor-conceived. She had long felt she was “standing on a false floor,” for she had nothing in common with her father and felt like a failure because of the dissonance between them, which she could not alter. From her earliest childhood, she had a deep “sense of aloneness.”
What her natural father had done seemed to her like “deliberate abandonment.” Writing eight years later, she says she no longer feels tormented because she now has “faith in a God who is Father.” Yet reflecting on her life, she says, “I cannot bear to contemplate the issues of identity and selfhood to be faced in years to come by anyone finding themselves a product of cloning.”
Some defend DI as a form of adoption, but adoption, she argues, is an “accidental,” meant to help children who need a home, while assisted reproduction is a “deliberately created” situation, based on the assumption that “children can be supplied to meet the demand of prospective parents.” DI purposely creates fatherless children, whose very existence depends on being “deprived of a relationship with a natural parent.”
Deliberately Cut Off
In her afterword, McWhinnie provides a learned analysis of these three histories and assures us they are “typical,” as demonstrated by her analysis of more than eighty adults conceived by DI. (Videos of her interviews with DI offspring are available from her at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Who Am I? tells a story not otherwise made known in a society that views insemination by anonymous donors as no more problematic than setting a broken bone. Jamieson rightly speaks of it as “a deliberate action, endorsed by the State and executed by the medical establishment” that cuts off the child from his natural family and is premised on the natural father and mother never meeting. This is animal husbandry adapted for the Brave New World.
For information on the book, write the Idreos Education Trust at email@example.com.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.