January 19, 2007

Olivia's presentation to Canadian Committee

The following are excerpts from a presentation that Olivia Pratten, a donor-inseminated child, gave to Canada's Standing Committee on Health in 2001. At the time, Olivia was 19. She appeared before the Committee in an attempt to open up Canada's assisted reproduction laws, so that anonymous sperm donation would no longer be allowed. Unfortunately, the laws were not changed. Olivia said:
After all, an anonymous system violates our human rights, as stated in article 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to “undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity”. Canada ratified this convention in 1991.
...To begin, the donor is not Dad to me. I have a Dad. However, 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 have obviously inherited heavily from my mother's genes when it comes to colouring and appearance. Nonetheless, in terms of personality and interests, there is little I have in common with her and that side of the family—but I still love her.

For example, I've always had an uncanny sense of direction. No matter where I am, without a compass, I can always find where I want to go and I can point to where north is. Neither my mother nor anyone else in her family has this ability. It's little idiosyncrasies like these that are always on my mind.

Over the years, I've tried to create sort of a visual image of what the donor might look like. We come up with, well, she's tall and I'm short, so I think he must have been short. We also think he probably has big hands, because people tease me about having big man hands—and I have smelly feet.

It's things like these that I'm constantly thinking about, and 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, it would not alter the essence of who I am. I know that already, but it would alter the way that I look at myself. Everything I already know about myself would be put into a different context, and I believe my perception of things would be altered.

It's almost like putting on a pair of glasses because your vision is no longer 20/20. It's frustrating, because everyone else can see things in the real light, but those of us who were conceived through anonymous gametes are left trying to figure out what's going on. It's a continuing feeling of unfairness and exclusion.

As a bit of a personal story here, when I was in grade 5 we had to do a family tree and a report about where our ancestors came from. I remember the feeling of exclusion and sadness I felt when I watched my best friend, Skye, fill in her family tree all the way back to the 1600s, alongside the family story that her surname indicated they were merchants. When it came down to me to write out my family tree, I looked on in envy at hers. I couldn't bring myself to write down my Dad's family.

Little things like these throughout one's lifetime serve as a reminder of what I and other DI offspring don't have and probably never will have—for example, talking about genetics and heredity in a high school biology class, or walking by a genealogical section of a bookstore. Perhaps it's having a friend show you a piece of jewellery that has been passed down through her family for generations. It is these things that people who know their true genetic heritage take for granted and quite often don't even realize the significance of. DI offspring are left to ponder for themselves who these missing relatives are.

Sometimes when I'm in Vancouver I wonder whether I pass him on the street. When I meet someone who was a UBC student around the time I was conceived, I look him over and wonder, could he be my biological father? What I do know is that there is an undeniable piece missing that I'm always subconsciously trying to find. And why should I when other Canadian citizens do not think twice about their genetic puzzle? Most of them don't even realize or appreciate what they have.

To continue creating future offspring with an anonymous system, knowing these facts, is unacceptable and irresponsible. Moreover, to give offspring so-called euphemized non-identifying information feels like a slap in the face, and from my point of view, I'd call it taunting information. Basically the message is, we know who he is but we will not tell you. Imagine the humiliation of walking into a government office and having someone who does not know you tell you this. Many offspring feel that this information belongs to them, so why should they have to go to a complete stranger to justify, knowing that they have the key to the donor's identity? What a horrible feeling it would be knowing that you're close yet so far away from ever knowing who this man, your biological father, really was.

Non-identifying information, I believe, is a joke. It's like making a gourmet meal, then putting it in front of me, and then telling me I cannot eat it. Even if I had the opportunity to have non-identifying information, I can tell you that it would not be enough. It would be something, but the desire to know who this man was would still be there—and I still have no dignity, as I have no say in the matter. The control and decision-making is still in the hands of the infertile couple and the donor.

The most glaring example of this that I saw in the draft legislation was that the donor can consent to having the information destroyed. Personally, I find this quite disgusting. That information is not just his information, it's my information. I carry it with me. I carry it in my genes. It will affect my family. I believe giving him this power is not right; it's unacceptable.

Another thing, while referring to the draft legislation, I came to conclude that Health Canada has been leaning towards the creation of a dual system. This is when couples can decide if they want an anonymous donor or not, and donors can decide whether or not they want to be identified when the child comes of age.

I feel that to create a system of anonymity alongside one of openness is unconscionable. A class of marginalized citizens will be deliberately created—DI children without knowing their genetic origins alongside other DI children who do and more Canadians conceived traditionally. What shame and isolation the child created in anonymity will feel. We have to ask ourselves, why are we even thinking this is acceptable?

The feelings of unfairness and exclusion will be even more compounded in a situation like this as the child realizes that their parents had the opportunity to choose an identifiable donor, but instead chose the path of secrecy, shame, and deception. I can only begin to imagine the distress I would feel towards my parents if I knew they could have chosen a different route than anonymity. I know, however, this was not the case.

I would like to see a system where donors cannot donate unless they are willing to be identified if the child requests this when he or she comes of age at 18. When the child, who is now an autonomous adult with rights equal to those of every other Canadian, feels ready, he or she can go through a bureau or something of this sort to make contact with the donor. The donor enters the program knowing this before donating. After all, he entered into this voluntarily; as offspring, we never asked to be put into this situation.

And from my many discussions with DI offspring over the years and with others who are adopted, I can tell you that at the core we share the same issues and desires of wanting to connect with that lost parent. In this day and age, we recognize the need of adoptees to know their genetic heritage. I wonder why, then, in light of all the research in the area of adoption, an anonymous gamete system in any form would even be considered. I've yet to meet an offspring conceived anonymously who says, “Gee, that's just wonderful. I'm so glad I'll never have the opportunity to know.”

On the contrary, these people are some of the most passionate advocates for openness. When talking about this issue, I often hear the debate of right to reproductive choice thrown in by the medical profession; however, I never made the choice not to know who my biological father is. I find it infuriating that my choice of whether I want to meet the donor has been taken away from me. The point is not whether I want to meet him, it's that I have the choice to do so in a dignified manner.

...I argue it's better to have an accountable, slightly smaller system than a large, unregulated one—a system where the priority has been that the supply must meet the demand for the infertile couples at the cost of considering the needs of the resulting offspring, who have been treated like commodities in a baby factory.

As a society, I believe we must balance our compassion for the pain of the infertile with the consciousness of not manufacturing babies just to ease this pain without thinking of the effect on the lifespan of the resulting child.

...Bill Cordray, an adult DI offspring and a personal friend, described the experience of genetic bewilderment in better words than I could and I quote him here:

Who am I? That is a basic question that everybody asks, and most people form their identities seeing their mirror images in their own family, as well as by environmental influences and social attachments to people. A major key to everyone's identity is their genetic blueprint, which most people can read in the faces of their family and can see in the photographs and stories of their ancestors.

As people conceived through assisted reproductive technology, we share the same struggle for full identity as adoptees. Medical professionals rarely look beyond the microscopic view of zygotes, gametes, blastocytes, embryos, or the ultrasonic images of the foetuses to see the human face of the people they create. Their primary focus has been the pain suffered by infertility patients. They've not considered the need of the children, who are the central reason for their profession.

That's the end of the quote. At the end of the day for the doctor, it's just the job. These issues are a mere professional debate. But for the other DI offspring and myself, it's our life; it is we who have to live with the decisions made for us before we were born.

...I can ask each of you to put yourself in my shoes. Could you honestly say you would be satisfied not ever knowing who contributed to half of your identity?
Read Olivia's full presentation here.

Read more about Olivia here: http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/observer/story.html?id=f0257a1a-b7d4-4872-a1b2-06747a933fd6

1 comment:

Michael said...

Great and inspiring blog Veronica. Thanks for posting the extracts and links to Myf's and my story and my December talk.
It is easy to get burnt out in pursuing this proclamation of the truth, so all strength to you.
Am adding more to my own blogs in coming days.
Thanks for your support -
Michael Linden