The Right to Know Our Identity

Dec 23, 2010 | Uncategorized

The heart rending story of twins who were separated and adopted at birth, only to meet later in life and marry, could easily be dismissed as a Greek tragedy, a one in a million coincidence unlikely ever to be repeated.  That would be a mistake.

With many children now conceived by in vitro fertilisation (IVF), and having the same biological parent, the chances of this happening again have been significantly increased.

The case illustrates the importance of providing every child – whether born naturally, as these twins were, or by IVF – with a true record of their identity. A law professor has been in touch with me to say how such a record averted a marriage, which was about to take place,  between an adopted brother and sister.

The current debate in Parliament about what appears on birth certificates could either make the situation worse – by allowing the true identity of biological parents to be removed –  or provide greater transparency and truth – which is why the Parliamentary committee that examined the issue warned against “the State colluding in a deception.”

You only have to look at web sites like the Donor Sibling Registry to see why this matters.
This database enables parents to make contact with the anonymous donors who supplied half of the genes of their offspring; children can search for their unknown genetic parents; and families may make contact with genetic half siblings with a donor in common.

Thousands of people have registered on that site looking for sperm donors, parents, and for the children they helped to conceive.  This is done by batch numbers and the site states that the largest match made so far has been between  26 half siblings to a single donor, who is also listed.

One man, a Californian artist, identified by batch 401, is father to 25 babies by 18 different women.
In Britain, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority draws the line at 10 donor conceived children.
In the case of sperm donation – since the sperm donations would probably be at the same IVF clinic or at least in the same city, and possibly all within a year or so, for example a student at University – there may well be a good chance that children born from these donations will grow up in the same city at around the same time, possibly some of them going to the same school and some possibly even being in the same year group.

Without absolute knowledge of your genetic profile the possibility of unwitting consanguineous or incestuous relationships is obvious.

Three years ago I pressed the Government to give British children the right to know the identity of their biological parents – and the donor anonymity that previously applied was lifted. But this only tells half the story. We gave the right to inquire but created no duty and to tell.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is the guardian of that information and at 18 a young adult has the right to ask for those details – although by then they might have been legally married for two years.

More problematic still is that your inquiry will be dependent on second sight – some intuition that the parents bringing you up are not your natural parents.  How many young people would call the HFEA, or even think of doing so?

Witnesses who gave evidence to Parliament expressed anger and frustration and described the often frantic efforts which they had made to discover their true identity. One woman said: “I was angry, I had been cheated, and discriminated against, and lumbered with a fake identity.”

We must also guard against undermining the dignity of human procreation and the distinctly human relationship between one generation and the next and turning children into accessories.  Our first duty is to the children who are created.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, puts it very well, stating that we must ensure that every child can “: preserve his or her identity.”

For an adopted child we have increasingly moved towards telling them the truth at an early age.  That good principle should apply to donor conceived children. Don’t they have the same right to know the truth?

I agree with Baroness Mary Warnock, who argued in our recent debate, that we should not “perpetrate official lies and almost telling the child to be told of his origins are overriding considerations. One of the greatest immoralities is to keep up a long term deception of a child as to his origins.”

In a world which for security reasons increasingly wants to identify us by our DNA, and wants to test us for genetic disorders, it would be wholly contradictory not to provide this information. If a child discovers the information by accident, or as the consequence of a tragic scenario, they will surely despise and resent those who kept it from them. We may also jeopardise their future health.

One of the deepest questions which we ask ourselves is “who am I?” The right to lineage affects us all – and uncertainty of parentage can be profoundly unsettling.   Moses’ second question on Mount Horeb was partly about his own identity: “who am I?”

The guidance of the Oracle of Delphi to the Lydian king, Croesus, was that to be happy, he must know himself.

The popularity of television programmes such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” shows that those ancient desires to know lineage, genealogy and identity are not confined to antiquity.

Is a donor a father, if not, what is he? Do we accept that a father-free child has a right or need to know the identity of his male parent? How much do genetic progenitors actually matter? These are profoundly important questions which should not become part of a galloping social experiment mediated by technology.

Lisa Mundy, an American feminist, in her new book “Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women and the World” examines the debate about “yuppie eugenics” and the stories she tells challenge us to think more thoughtfully about the implications of reproductive technologies.  She reveals the nature of designed pregnancy and the heart-breaking search for identity.

Whether it is the couple arguing about what height their egg donor should be; another providing a score list based on looks, education, IQ and sporting interests, or the difference between donors and surrogates and her description  of a poverty driven “breeder class” of poor women, who become surrogates, these are questions society needs to ponder. She asks where is the social justice in this?

Also, separating parenthood from these debates about genetics is a huge error.
That is why Baroness Ruth Deech – a celebrated academic lawyer specialising in family law – is rightly asking Parliament not to accept the Government’s proposal to allow the identity of fathers not to appear on birth certificates: “Mine is a plea not to include a deliberate biological lie on a birth certificate,” she says.

A birth certificate is not a social record; it is a historical record of identity. So what should we do?
When a child comes into the world, parents obtain two birth certificates, a long and short version. These should accurately tell the child’s true story.

In future, one certificate could contain the basic facts of your bir
th while the longer version could record the fact of conception by donor. When using the certificate to obtain a passport or driving licence it would, thus, be possible to sustain family privacy while also allowing for transparency and truthfulness about origins.

Crucially, this legal document would be a guarantee that every citizen would be able to privately establish the details of their true identity; and that, in turn, might lessen the chances of tragic outcomes in the future.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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