True Fatherhood is not about Biology by Amy Corderoy

Reprint from The Sydney Morning Herald

March 22, 2011

'I always knew there was something missing''. That is a line you often hear from those born through sperm or egg donation.

The debate over whether information identifying previously anonymous sperm donors should be revealed is generally thought of as a conflict between the right of children to know their genetic heritage and the right of men to privacy.

But as someone who was conceived through a sperm donation, I never understood the collective obsession with genetic heritage, or thought I was missing anything.

For about 10 years sperm donations have only been accepted from men who agree to be contacted in future by children. This rule is based on the idea that genetic parents have so significant a role to play in our lives that it should not be denied to us. There are medical reasons too, but these could be taken care of by allowing access to anonymous medical records.

In popular culture we are bombarded with this idea: adoptees joyfully reunited with biological parents on TV shows, children born through sperm donation who tell of the psychological pain they feel as they grapple to make sense of their background and heritage.

But we all know what it is to yearn for more, and to question our place in the world. Most people eventually develop a sense of place and personhood, or at least learn to live with feelings of uncertainty.

Yet for people who are adopted or born through donor egg or sperm, society continually reinforces that feeling. We are told repeatedly that yes, there is something missing.

You cannot know who you are unless you know your biological parent. The views of adoptees and donor-conceived people who believe this are well-represented, while those who do not have those feelings stay silent.

Until recently I had no idea who my biological father was. And I was fine with that. But almost everyone else, it seemed, was not.

"Really?" they would say. "But don't you want a father?"

They found it difficult to imagine life without their own father and they did not differentiate between their biological connection and their emotional, familial connection born of shared experiences and values. But if I ever meet my biological father, I will not find a ''father'' in him. He had no input into the adult I am today besides giving me the genetic building blocks I needed for my life to begin.

The reality is you - the things that make you really you - are not your genes. There is no gene for your love of camping, or the comfort you get from the smell of your mother's perfume.

Knowing your biological parent will never explain why you love the one you do, why you hate early mornings or feel uplifted by classical music. Your genes and your environment interact to create you, but they do not give meaning to your life. Add to that what scientists call developmental noise, when characteristics between people vary greatly despite similar genetics and environment, and the idea our genes might explain our lives becomes highly unlikely.

There is an appealing safety to the idea that blood is thicker than water; biological family must be there for you, no matter what. But of course such connections do not always hold. People are abandoned by blood relatives, and an adoptive or step parent can give the type of true, unyielding love imagined to be the sole domain of the blood bond.

Our tendency to invest meaning in a biological bond is not only misguided; it can cause problems.

If a sperm donor and (now fully grown) child develop a familial bond, that is wonderful for both. A voluntary system for reconciliation works perfectly for such cases. But what happens if he feels no paternal feelings? Has no desire for a relationship?

This man donated his sperm not because he desired a child but because he empathized with the desperation another family had for one. To believe that the right of a child to know his ''identity'' - a right based on cultural mythology - should trump his desires seems unfair.

And what of the children who don't desire to meet these donors, but have their feelings constantly questioned by a society that places so much emphasis on their biological ''family''?

Already our culture of enforced disclosure has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Fertility clinics have reported sperm donation rates plummeting, to the point that IVF Australia considers getting 14 new donors after an advertising campaign to be a victory.

Perhaps this is a price worth paying to protect the children of sperm donors from future heartache, and perhaps as a society we are willing to sacrifice the wishes of past sperm donors at the altar of their children's desire for knowledge.

But we should at least consider the scientific and emotional basis on which we make such decisions, and whether with more thought we still believe knowing your biological parents is the most important thing.

Amy Corderoy is a health reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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