150 Half-Siblings? Let’s Learn Some Old Lessons

September 6, 2011

Today’s New York Times story on the multiple children of sperm donors (http://tinyurl.com/NYTdonors) is fascinating, important, informative – and missing a key component; that is, what can and should we be doing about a reality in which one sperm donor can produce 150 children!

Adoption’s history can help us to better understand and deal with complex issues like this. I can only hope that any journalist contemplating a follow-up article, in the Times or elsewhere, will include elements of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute’s report entitled “Old Lessons for a New World” (http://tinyurl.com/OldLessons). It contains a lot of very good research and analysis about what we can learn from adoption’s experiences, and how we might apply that knowledge to assisted reproductive technologies (ART), including sperm donation.  

The findings in the Institute’s report include:

• The problematic effects of secrecy and of withholding information – on adopted persons, birthparents, and adoptive families – offer insights for ART policy and practice related to the circumstances of a donor offspring’s conception, disclosure of medical and other background information, and the identities of those involved.

• The child-centered focus of adoption provides a vital perspective for placing greater attention on the children conceived through ART.

• Adoption has knowledge to share concerning the creation of “nontraditional” families, particularly as more single, gay, and lesbian adults use ART.

• ART and adoption can mutually benefit from examination of the impact of market forces (including the costs of services and the potential commodification of the individuals involved) on the ethics and quality of services provided.

• The legal and regulatory framework for adoption provides a model that ART can utilize to inform its standards and procedures.

And here are some of the recommendations:

  • Processes and policies should be implemented to allow children born of ART to learn the circumstances of their births, as well as their biological and medical backgrounds.
  • Research should be conducted to better understand the experiences of all parties to ART, to determine what services would benefit them, and to develop best practices.
  • Market forces should be analyzed to develop a better understanding of how they affect ART – as well as adoption – in order to develop more constructive, ethical practices.
  • States should enact legal and regulatory frameworks for ART to promote ethical practices and provide protections for gamete providers, intended parents, and offspring.

The full report is well worth reading. To paraphrase a time-honored cliched: If we’re going to make progress in the future, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past.

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