The New Underclass
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

February 7, 2004

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At first reading it seemed like a breakthrough. In Britain, the Government has just announced its plans to remove the right to anonymity for people who donate sperm, eggs and embryos.

Under a storm of protest from organizations fearing the drying-up of sperm supplies, Melanie Johnston, the Public Health Minister in Britain, said she firmly believed donor-conceived people have a right to information about their genetic origins.

Scandinavian countries have always had open sperm donor files and most clinics in the US have the option of open files, while clinics in New Zealand do not accept anonymous donors, so the British move is very timely.

Except, that is, for an entire generation of donor-conceived people. For them Johnston's ruling is just lip service because even if the new British regulations get parliamentary approval, they will not come into force until next year and are not retroactive, meaning that the first time an 18-year-old will be able to find out the identity of their donor will be 2023.

What does this mean for people conceived anonymously before this legislation takes effect? Ask most adopted people about their genetic heritage and they'll describe their sense of history as blankness, as a gaping hole that could be filled with anything, good or evil.

They talk of those who know their genetic history as being complete, as having a starting point from which they can create themselves. Adopted people inhabit negative social statistics in disproportionate numbers.

From a medical perspective the need to know has never been more imperative. Genetics is becoming a major factor in the prediction, diagnosis and treatment of all kinds of disorders, from genetic mutations to cancers that stalk generations of a single family. According to a paper by James R. Lupski, MD, PhD, by age 25, 8 per cent of us will be diagnosed with a disorder that has a major genetic component. There are even organizations now that will create therapies and preventative treatments tailored to specific genetic make-up.

On the behavioral side there is increasing evidence that the old nature v nurture paradigm is heavily weighted in favor of heredity. For instance, a report in the journal Science suggests the reason jet lag hits some travelers harder than others may lie in our mothers' genes.

Other studies suggest that for boys, aggressive antisocial behavior like bullying can be inherited through the genes, while girls can inherit non-aggressive antisocial behavior like truancy and theft.

But none of this seems to have touched the cloistered world of anonymous sperm, egg and embryo donation, the foundation of the reproductive technology industry in Britain.

It's as if this branch of the scientific community is suffering from a profound disconnect, a reductionism that ignores the resultant life experience of the products of their microscopes, Petri dishes and even the anonymous turkey basters of Man Not Included, a company set up to service the maternal desires of the lesbian community.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole scenario is the response of parents. Research in Britain in 2001 showed that nine out of 10 parents whose children were conceived using donor sperm have not told them the truth. Many parents of 10- to 12-year-olds were too scared about how the revelation would affect their relationship with the child, and half said they had no intention of revealing the secret even when the child was much older.

Could there be a more blatant or selfish example of misuse of the parental role?

In New Zealand, Professor Ken Daniels of Canterbury University has written a book for those involved in the donor circle. Building Families with the Assistance of Donor Insemination is to be published later this year and covers issues such as the secrecy, shame and fear associated with creating families through technology.

Families based in lies are not healthy, he says, and notes that new legislation, due to become law in the middle of the year, will see all donors registered, with the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

Every clique has its hierarchy. In the world of reproductive technology, people conceived and born the old-fashioned way and then adopted now have the right to know their genetic heritage. But while Britain attempts not to override past agreements of anonymity with donors, while it tries to keep up the supply of new donors, it is failing miserably to protect the lives of those already born and those who will be born over the next year.

To allow technology to willfully create an underclass of people and to support parents in denying children their genetic history is to continue the social, medical and emotional disadvantages suffered for generations by adopted people. To sustain that disadvantaged position through legislation is profoundly unjust.

Oscar Wilde said that one's past is what one is. He may not have meant the hereditary past, but with science dissolving the barriers between generations, his sentiment stands. What further evidence does Britain need?

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/ 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn

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