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Guest Post: Nothing if not family?

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Written by Daniela Cutas Lund University

What are genetic relatives to each other if they are not de facto relatives? Is there no relation between a donor-conceived person and their gamete donor? Between the donor-conceived person and the donor´s other offspring or parents or aunts and uncles? Should parents facilitate acquaintance between their children and their children´s gamete donors or donor siblings or other close genetic relatives?

Answers to these questions will differ depending on how one regards the significance of genetic ties. For some, genetic ties equal real relatedness between people: blood is thicker than water, and your genetic relatives ultimately are your family. Anything else is at best a proxy, and at worst a lie. For others, the focus on genes and genetic relatedness is irrational and potentially harmful. It reinforces prejudice and reduces people to their biological components and the relationships between them to combinations of genes. Both these and other attitudes are simultaneously represented in many cultures and legislatures in the Western world. Sometimes, parents of donor-conceived children, who see themselves without a doubt as their children´s rightful parents, may fear that their children may choose to see the gamete donors as their parents instead. Other parents and children may be blissfully in sync with each other but find themselves in extended families and communities in which others see things differently and behave accordingly.

In recent years, social scientists have worked to uncover these complexities. They have shown that many donor-conceived people do wish to know (of) their genetic relatives, but not necessarily because they associate them with family. They may, for example, want to see who they look like, how much they have in common with close genetic relatives, or they may simply believe that whether or not they know the identity of their close genetic relatives should be up to them, and not up to their parents or their parents´ doctors.

But is there significance in genetic ties if they´re not family, and beyond a self-regarding interest from a personal identity perspective? And if there is, is it restricted to the donor / donor-conceived relationship? Commonly, family relations are represented as top-down and given (you are born into a family, and family relationships are determined downwards the family tree). But some people today choose to find, and build relationships with, their close genetic relatives. Due to the possibilities opened by sperm donation, some people have hundreds of donor siblings, who can be of different ages, backgrounds, and geographical locations. Some of these donor siblings may not be interested in each other, but those who are, may experience a form of connection that is both elective and genetic/kinship based. They may, in this way, have access to relationship goods that are unavailable to others. They not only share genes, but they also have something in common that they may not share with other family members: the experience of being donor conceived. Their respective families may differ significantly between them, which can expose the genetic siblings to very different ways of life. Arguably, they may be better off being able to know and relate to each other as children: they would then be able to grow up with each other in their lives and form life-long bonds, just as others do with siblings and some friends. However, even in legislatures in which gamete donation is not anonymous, it tends to be the case that donor-conceived people will only have access to identifying information about the donor, not about other genetic relatives – and only once they are adults.

When we look at genetic ties either strictly through the intergenerational lens of parent / child, donor / donor-conceived individual, or through the lens of the interest in one´s own personal identity, we may miss the opportunity to appreciate these goods that those who have close genetic ties outside of their family may be able to derive from acquaintance with each other. This is what my paper is about.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. This entire enterprise is phantasm, seem to me. Don’t get me wrong. family is, what is the word? Nuclear? That term was misplaced when it was coined, whenever that was. But, when,again, reproduction had to be regulated. Somehow. So that there could be evolution. Progress. And controlled reproduction, all of which have been achieved. More, or less. Well, less turned out to be more, and, we are ill-equipped to handle that. I have ideas of why all this is so. So do others, I am certain.

  2. One other offering which I count as fundamental:
    Family is a term of convenience and tradition. It need not be reduced to genetic relationships, save for analyses of matters of inheritance and property rights, which, on the bottom line, translate to economics. If this sounds crude or cold, consider my immediate family, consisting of mother, father and two sons. Several years (I don’t know how many) before my Mother died, she and Dad did some estate planning and had their home and whatever else deemed to be of value deeded to my brother and I. I think the timeframe was roughly between 1980 and 1985. They did this for two reasons: 1. They wanted us to have what was left when they were gone. 2. They did not want remaining kin to squabble over that, so they made certain such would not happen. Had brother and I been adopted children, things may have been done differently. But, I kind of doubt it. Hunter/gatherers probably had different rules. Or, none at all?

  3. The thought-provoking questions you raise in your article about the significance of genetic ties and relationships in the context of donor-conceived individuals are truly intriguing. Your exploration of how perspectives on genetic relatedness can vary, and how this impacts the donor-conceived person’s understanding of their identity and family dynamics, sheds light on an important and evolving aspect of modern society. Your article prompts readers to consider these complex issues from various angles, which is both enlightening and necessary. Thank you for sharing your insights and contributing to this essential conversation.

    Best regards,

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