August 11, 2008

They're girls? Oh, then we don't want them...

A while ago, a news story came out about a British couple of Indian heritage who had just had twin girls. The 72-year old man and the 59-year old woman went through all the trouble of IVF to have babies - but apparently, it was all to have male babies. It turns out the doctors made a booboo, and the babies were girls! So the couple dropped them like hot potatoes right there in the hospital (the exact words in the article: they were not going to "accept" the babies, as if they were just products on offer), and the husband even had the nerve to inquire as to how soon his wife would be ready to go through IVF again to try for boys. (Read the story here).

Now, some may brush this incident off as a mere reflection of ignorant traditional culture that devalues girls. Partly true, but there is more to it. It is also undeniable that the whole process of IVF merely reinforces this kind of mentality, where newborn babies are treated like damaged merchandise based on their characteristics. This is why similar "wrongful birth" incidents are starting to pop up all over the place. In Australia recently, there have been at least two that I recently wrote about, where the parents are upset with the IVF doctors for "messing up" their order and are suing for compensation. Who cares if the characteristic is the gender, or genetic predispositions, or physical characteristics? The point is, IVF has sounded the death knell of unconditional parenal love, an incredibly important foundation for healthy child development.


Anonymous said...

Good to have you posting again Veronica.

-- Tom

Val said...

Ditto - I keep surfin' by & was finally rewarded!
Veronica if you have any helpful links to resources for people caught in my sort of ethical dilemma [my friend wants it to remain dead secret that her "miracle" twins were in fact, conceived via donor eggs & IVF] - I intend for my godsons to know the truth of their origins when they're of age, even though their mother may never forgive me! It is their inalienable right, after all - but I would like to set up something in trust, in case something happens to me before that time...

Veronica Thomas said...

Hi Tom and Val,

Thanks for your comments! I have been away for a while getting an operation (what a great way to spend the summer :-). It's been a long recovery, but my husband and I hope that this operation might make it easier for us to get pregnant. There are no guarantees though, and even though I'm glad to have done it, I'd still say it's less than 50% likely to help, so we'll see...

Anyway, it's good to be back to nearly normal again.

Veronica Thomas said...


Intersting dilemma. I am sure that there are thousands of people walking around in your shoes. In one of the documents on the website of the Donor Sibling Registry, it is estimated that 90% of parents who use sperm donors still do not tell their children that they are donor conceived. I'm not sure the number is that high these days, since there is an emerging movement towards openness on this subject, but even if the percentage of parents who don't tell is 70% or even 50%, there's no doubt that it is still a high proportion even today.

Other studies also say that in MOST cases, the parents have told at least one other adult that the child is donor conceived, even if they have not told that child. So there are very often other people who know, and who must bite their tongue so as not to divulge the family secret.

In fact, this is one of the main reasons why the industry is now starting to counsel parents towards openness with their children. The history of donor conception has shown that there have often been these kind of "accidental divulgences" where the children found out from people other than their parents, causing the children to feel betrayed by the parents and leading to serious problems in the child-parent relationship.

How many people has your friend told about this secret, other than yourself? Maybe you could convince her that there is a high probability that if several other people know, then the twins will somehow find out from others eventually, and it would be much better if she told them herself.

You might also want to make your friend familiar with the other negative effects of not telling the chilren, effects that have been observed throughout the history of "silent" donor conception. This is documented, for example, in one article that I blogged about in the past, which is at:

By the way, I certainly don’t agree with everything in this article, and this is why I blogged about it last time (March 2007). However, it has a good discussion of the harmful effects of silence:

Damaging effects of shock disclosure

The recently published research by Turner and Coyle in Vol 15 of Human Reproduction gives evidence about the damaging effects of the disclosure on individuals who found out in their late teens or later that they had been conceived through donor insemination. They report that the individuals experienced profound negative feelings of shock of disclosure and feelings of deceit and mistrust. They reported feelings of discontinuity within the family and a lowering of self esteem; for them the lack of disclosure undermined the principles of honesty and trust within families, and it is suggested that this lack of trust might be replicated in their own relationships
So what are the risks of disclosure? From a strictly utilitarian perspective, let's think for a moment how likely is it that this risk will occur? First, the individuals conceived after August 1991will have the right to consult the HFEA register at any time in their lives if they have any suspicions about their origins. And we'll have a look in a minute at how these suspicions might arise. Parents concealing information about their children's origins will have to practise a lifelong act of deception. They will also have to ensure that no one else that they have told the truth to ever discloses it - and the evidence suggests that most of those who intend not to tell have actually told at least one other person. In order to be sure their secret pact stays secure they will have to ensure that their marriage or relationship remains stable until the day they both die (or at least that the secret survives a break-up), and who can guarantee either of those?
A caller to our Helpline last year was frantic because her clinic (deliberately chosen to be 100 miles from her home) was determined to keep the records of her two DI conceptions for 50 years. The caller would have liked them to be destroyed. She was resolute that her two children, now older teenagers, should not discover the truth of their origins. Almost as a, by the way, she told me that she had twice had cancer over the years since her children were born and she was sure this was due to the strain of keeping the secret, but as far as she was concerned it was all worth it!
This takes us beyond mere risk analysis to the Effect on quality of parent/child relationship We have learned from Clare Murray's research that the children of non-telling parents in their study seemed normal in every measure of development and psychological adjustment; and that their families seemed warmer and more involved with the children than those families where children were conceived in the conventional fashion. But this is a small study of self-selected parents and their children are only just entering adolescence. As a parent of media conscious teenagers I cannot imagine how I would handle the constant presence of issues to do with genes and inherited diseases in the press and on TV, or biology homework about reproduction, assisted conception and genetic traits in families, if the knowledge of our children's DI conception was not an everyday fact in our house. I cannot imagine lying to two young people , who at this crucial time of seeking their own individual identities, need parents they can trust to be straight and honest with them, providing a solid backdrop to their questioning and experimentation with life. Undoubtedly the children in the City University study will have gained resilience through strong attachments and high quality relationships with their parents. Providing the circumstances are good, they may well be able to accommodate the facts of their conception explained later rather than earlier, without serious psychological damage. But why risk a rift in relationships at a vulnerable time when early sharing of information could lead to children growing up never knowing a time when they 'didn't know'. The other issue is the impact of keeping secrets over time: the silences or glances between parents when anything to do with inherited characteristics comes up. The lack of comment, or the lack of response to remarks made by others (common in most families, particularly at times of family gatherings) about a child looking or behaving 'just like Auntie Jean'. What is a young person to make of this? Psychological literature going back many years suggests that big secrets felt as an atmosphere or 'presence' in families do not provide an emotionally healthy climate in which to bring up children. It may be easy to 'forget' a child's origins when they are young and provide a relaxed, loving presence in the home, but keeping this up under the alert and critical eyes and ears of teenagers must be a palpable strain which is bound to be felt by all at some level, even if it does not give everyone cancer!
So Is disclosure of an untraceable connection also (or equally) damaging? It is sometimes suggested that people would be even more damaged and confused by the inability to trace an anonymous donor (if they were told) than they would by the risk (or actuality) of keeping the conception a secret. But it is clear from the increasing number of adult offspring who were told or found out from late teenage years onwards that it was the deception about their origins that hurt and disturbed them, not the fact of their DI conception.

Val said...

Thanks, Veronica - I will be keeping my fingers crossed for your successful [natural] pregnancy!
You can either call me blessed or cursed - I am the ONLY one my friend informed [she didn't even tell her OWN mother, & she was quite upset w/me when I told MINE]. We've got a bit more time to work through this, her twins are barely a year old now, but the youngest has had many health problems & consequent developmental delays...

Anonymous said...

Dear Val,

Maybe one way forward is to simply continue pushing information the way of your friend about the value of openness. Perhaps she will be moved by the self-serving argument that her relationship with the children will very likely fare far better if they find out earlier rather than later. And the fact is that nowadays it's not so easy to hide genetic origins. People are sending off their DNA samples all the time to ancestry tracing websites - and some of those websites can link DNA to probable last names (that's how at least one boy child has traced his formerly anonymous donor). It's sort of the equivalent of the blood group type test of old (a child working out that they can't be the genetic offspring of their parents because their blood group does not match mum or dad). I wouldn't be suprised if by the time the children are sixteen and doing biology simple DNA tests are as much part of the course, as blood type tests were in my day.

I'm not saying this is the best reason for openness - the best reason, in my view, is primarily that it is the children's right to know (and secondarily that it must be damaging to family relationships to be forced to conceal). But if she is thinking mainly about herself, and keeping it a secret for her own sake, perhaps the best way in is to persuade her that this is probably not going to be possible in the long term - and all research indicates that it is likely more damanging for the children - and the children's relationship with their parents - if they find out when they are older.

I don't know if you are in the UK or in the US - but if it is the UK maybe it's worth pushing her towards the DCN website so she can see what others in the same situation feel. Also the DCN runs 'talking and telling' workshops - as well as downloadable booklets of teh same name, all about disclosing.

By the way: I understand why you feel you need to tell their children - but you are in an awkward position - and one I would certainly feel uncomfortable to be in myself: it is the children's right to know, but I'm not sure whether that means it is your right to disclose.

If you are really determined to go ahead and disclose, perhaps rather than do so secretly you should just tell your friend that if she doesn't tell the children, you will. Force her hand. It's not going to make you popular, but at least it will be above board, and will give your friend the chance to act.