On the fundamental level gamete donation seems to be a wonderful thing. Giving children to those who are unable to conceive naturally. However the more thought I devote to the reality of sperm and egg donation, the more complex ethical issues arise in my head.
As a human, we want to be able to pass our on genetic traits onto our offspring. Parents want to see a ‘little me’ running around the backyard. They want to create copies of themselves that they can relate to. Basically, I want to see my eyes and nose passed onto my daughter.
It is for this reason that the consideration of using familial gametes has surfaced. In layman’s terms, using your brother as sperm donor for your wife, in order to ensure that your offspring will share the closest genetic resemblance with yourself. (Provided the donation is brother to brother.)
In recent weeks, I have taken this topic to discussion with my friends. I have found thus far that most women would donate an egg to their sister, with many more likely to provide donation if the donor had already bore children themselves. Men on the other hand tend to view their sperm as their property and donating to their brother is simply unacceptable. Both the men and women interviewed here express concern for how ‘they’ would feel as the biological parent. Only one male considered the impact of giving your brother the most important gift of his life.
What concerns me here is that suddenly we put a value on sperm/eggs if they are used for a reason other than going in a bin. How many men have given women sperm ‘free of charge’ without further thought?
In the case of women donating to their sisters, many felt that they would feel a sense of missing out on the child, if in fact they never had their own. A selfish/jealous relationship would ensue if in fact a child were brought into this environment. (It is important to note here, I am not judging the responses from my friends, I am merely assessing them critically and primarily.)
The males see themselves proud and worthy owners of their sperm. That they could not give a part of themselves to their brother, but they are happy to give a part of themselves to the next female who walks in the door. More interestingly a gay male was happy to donate to his female best friend so that she could rear a child but not to his said brother. The common link here was that many men felt proud and define themselves by their ability to ejaculate. Moreover the concept of asking their brother for sperm to start their family is an insult to their own penis.
It is worth noting that in the complexity of the fertilization lies the intricacy of prior family relationships. A woman who tried unsuccessfully to donate eggs to her sister stated that she would be prepared to donate for this particular sister, as it meant the world to her and that they are close. But on the other hand, she would not be so accommodating to her other sister.
Both men and women interviewed feel that they would have some sort of biological responsibility to that child and would be unsure how they would react to adverse parenting decisions by their siblings. All parties except one reflected on their feelings as the donor and not the desperate couple trying to conceive. Is this because I spoke primarily to a generation of people who are deemed self-centered?
But what represents a parent? Is it because we have a biological association or is it because we rear the child?
Sperm donation by a genetic father or an unspecified party does not constitute a ‘father’. We view a father as a person who has a responsibility for a child; to protect, to provide and to care. Many times in my teaching career, I hear about so-called fathers who have made no real effort to be a ‘real father’. The same goes for the mothers of these lost children.
In the case of adoption, parents are not genetically related to the child, however the child is still the legal responsibility of the parents who adopt them. That adoptive parents can love a child as much as if it was biologically theirs, although physically they might be races apart. In the case of Brad and Angelia Jolie, they have three adopted children and three biological children. As the adopted children spawning from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam bare no resemblance to their parents or even each other, do you think they would feel any less apart of the Jolie-Pitt family?
I pose the question, would you feel less attached to your nieces or nephews if for a horrible reason they found there way into your custody? I would argue that these children would become just as a part of your family as your own biological children. And that over the years you would see no boundaries between these children and your own. So why is it so intrinsically different to providing gametes to a sibling?
What about the potential effect on the children? Do you tell them or not? “Knowledge of the actual genetic relationships among the participants could contribute to a profoundly altered view of identity and family relationships.”(1) Again, how is this so different from an outside gamete fertilization or an adoption? In all three cases, the child would produce symptoms of a non-traditional identity establishment. Many argue that informing your children of their adoption early on helps the child to adjust to the situation whilst their emotional development is still being formulated. This saves the emotional turmoil that a child might undergo if they stumble upon adoption papers in the future. But how to you explain to a five year old that their daddy isn’t their real daddy, that their uncle is their real daddy, but the uncle is not married to mummy, and mummy and daddy love each other? I am finding it hard to explain myself.
One further expansion of the issue, is in the case of gay couples. If a lesbian couple used the brother of one of the female partners to produce a child with a genetic relationship to both of the females, is that wrong?
The Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine argues that
“Familial gamete donation ensures that some portion of the infertile person’s genes will be passed to the offspring, thus maintaining a kinship tie that would be lost if an unrelated donor were used. In one of the few reports about known sperm donors, family involvement was chosen so that the infertile male could feel a ‘‘genetic closeness’’ to his child.” (2)
So in the case of the gay couples, if the gamete was not a familial gamete that one partner would feel a disassociation to the offspring, if in fact the other was the genetic parent. Furthermore, if the genetic parent became deceased, then the partner of the genetic parent may not have legal guardianship of the child and the child might be removed from the homosexual parenthood and placed elsewhere. As we begin evolve in the rights of homosexual unions, we have still not directly addressed the issue of step-parenthood/parenthood of homosexual couples. It could also be likely that the genetic donor could request for guardianship of the child. Ultimately leaving the non-genetic homosexual partner with no legal rights or responsibilities over the child they have reared.
In the TV Drama Brothers and Sisters, it addresses a similar scenario, where a gay brother and the second brother donated their sperm to a third brother and their wife. The idea being that neither brother would know who fathered the child. However, as dramas are dramatized and worst case scenarios are always played out, it turned out that they found out that it was the gay brother’s sperm which fertilized his sister in law’s egg. Thus proving only that the concept of familial gamete donation is a very real scenario within the medical world.
Of course there are a variety of different familial gamete donations that can be explored, such as father to son, mother to daughter etc. However for the purpose of this piece I have only focused on sibling-to-sibling donations. The Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine also addresses in part sister to brother donation and the consequence of incest in particular cases.
The entire argument can not be fully justified without mentioning the Social Darwinist theory of Evolution. Survival of the fittest in this context would point to the assumption that people who can not biologically bear children should not. If it was meant to be it would. Should people have the power to overrule nature?
IVF practices seem to deny the foundations of this theory and provide those who are not meant to conceive naturally, fertilized embryos to be placed within their uterus. Thus allowing infertile couples the ability to foster life. It is also important to address that IVF is not always successful and many couples are left with holes in their pocket and gaps in their hearts. The argument here is that technology has allowed us on occasion to defy nature and create a population of IVF babies. Do people have the right to play god?
In conclusion, I cannot move forward of the point that we give to value to gametes only when they create a fetus, yet we throw thousands in the trash each day. It’s no different to wanting the toy your brother is playing with only because he is playing with it.
I would like to think that on the basis of wanting to give my sister the best present one could ever give, I would donate my eggs, before or after children. After all, if I don’t use them they will most likely end up in a sanitary bin.
“Bear the gift of life.”
(1) & (2) The Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine:
www.asrm.org/EthicsReports/ or view the document below –
Using family members as gameteopl donors or surrogates