Waldlaw Blog

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Lessons we can Learn from Open Adoptions

I recently was talking to some folks about the world of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), and the lessons we can learn from the world of adoptions. For decades, the rule for adoptions was complete secrecy. Original birth records were sealed, and adoptees had no access to information about their birth families. Nor did women who had given up their children for adoption have any hope of finding those children again through official channels. This is still true in some states. But, based on years of social science research, we're beginning to understand that deception and secrecy don't serve people well when it comes to such highly personal and emotional issues as who our genetic parents are and why they made the choices they did about our lives and futures. So open adoption is increasingly becoming the norm, and we're increasingly abandoning what my friend Jill refers to as the "witness protection program approach" to adoption, whereby children are given new names and identities and their pasts erased upon adoption into a new family. Now turn to the world of assisted reproductive technologies. There is one sperm bank in the San Francisco Bay Area -- Rainbow Flag Health Services -- that tells the mother(s) who their donor is when the baby is 3 months old and requests that the mother(s) contact the donor by the time the child is a year old (for more information, visit http://www.gayspermbank.com/); and there are some sperm banks that provide "identity release" donors, whose personal information can be accessed by their genetic children when those children turn 18 (for example, The Sperm Bank of California, which pioneered this program in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1983 -- see http://www.thespermbankofca.org/ for more information; or Pacific Reproductive Services here in San Francisco, which has carried on its own program using "Willing-To-Be-Known Donors" for over a decade -- see http://www.pacrepro.com/). However, with these few exceptions, the rule in the infertility world continues to be secrecy and/or deception. If a married couple can't conceive without the assistance of sperm or egg donations, they can get these donations through a fertility clinic with a guarantee of complete privacy, and they never have to tell anyone that the resulting baby isn't theirs genetically -- they don't even have to tell their own child. I am afraid that many, many children are being raised to believe that they are the genetic off-spring of their parents, with the danger that they will find out much later that they actually were conceived using the eggs and/or sperm of genetic strangers and have been deceived on this subject by their parents. Let me be clear -- it isn't the use of outside genetic material to conceive a family that I am worried about. This is what many, many families in my community and my law practice do, and do with my complete blessing. It is the deception that worries me. When I do workshops for lesbian and gay couples considering parenthood, what I tell them is that their job, as parents-to-be, is to make choices about how to bring children into their lives that they, themselves, are comfortable with, and then to stand ready to be allies to their children in their children's experiences of those choices. In other words, we can't predict how our children are going to feel about our choices to use a known or unknown sperm donor; to conceive or to adopt; to enter into a traditional or gestational surrogacy arrangement. But I believe that it is our duty, as parents, once those choices are made, to be honest with our children, and to support them in their experiences of the choices we have made, even if those experiences are challenging or difficult. There are lessons to be learned from the long experience of those in the adoption community. It is time that folks in the ART community start learning them.

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