Tangled: how sperm donors and surrogates are changing the family tree

And the branches are harder to discern. Below, cousins who are also, biologically, half-siblings.

The New York Times looks at some strange and disturbing trends:

Laura Ashmore and Jennifer Williams are sisters. After that, their relationship becomes more complex.

When Ms. Ashmore and her husband, Lee, learned a few years ago that they could not conceive a child, Ms. Williams stepped in and offered to become pregnant with a donor’s sperm on behalf of the couple, and give birth to the child. The baby, Mallory, was born in September 2007 and adopted by Ms. Ashmore and her husband.

Then the sisters began to ponder: where would the little girl sit on the family tree?

“For medical purposes I am her mother,” Ms. Williams said. “But I am also her aunt.”

Many families are grappling with similar questions as a family tree today is beginning to look more like a tangled forest. Genealogists have long defined familial relations along bloodlines or marriage. But as the composition of families changes, so too has the notion of who gets a branch on the family tree.

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

Adriana Murphy, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at the Green Acres School in Rockville, Md., said she asked students to write a story about an aspect of their family history instead. At Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, KC Cohen, a counselor, said the family tree had been mostly relegated to foreign language class, where students can practice saying “brother” or “sister” in French and Spanish.

“You have to be ready to have that conversation about surrogates, sperm donors and same-sex parents if you are going to teach the family tree in the classroom,” Ms. Cohen said.

For the last six years, according to United States census data, there have been more unmarried households than married ones. And more same-sex couples are having children using surrogates or sperm donors or by adoption. The California Cryobank, one of the nation’s largest sperm banks, said that about one-third of its clients in 2009 were lesbian couples, compared with 7 percent a decade earlier. Even birth certificate reporting is catching up. New questions are being phased in nationally on the standard birth certificate questionnaire about whether, and what type of, reproductive technology was used, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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14 responses to “Tangled: how sperm donors and surrogates are changing the family tree”

  1. I completely agree with the Church’s teaching that IVF is wrong, for a lot of reasons. However sometimes an “ain’t it awful” discussion of these things forgets the actual children who were conceived this way. We never want it to seem to them that we wish they weren’t here. I think it is good when the discussions and debates re: “assisted fertility” take place among adults-only; as my mother used to say, “Little pitchers have big ears”. I have cringed a few times (thankfully, not often) when the subject was addressed from the pulpit, because there were probably IVF-conceived children in the congregation, and some of them know it. It is a delicate thing to parse the objective morality (or lack of it) of a situation, at the same time affirming each child, regardless of origin, as beloved of God.

  2. 24 years ago when I was student teaching biology to 7th graders, I was warned about teaching genetics by using the students’ own families as examples. Don’t talk about eye color, etc. I was told many students come from nontraditional backgrounds and it could make it awkward for them. The main concerns then were step-parents and siblings, adoption, live-ins, etc. Today it seems even more troublesome. Even it a teacher used only nonhuman examples, the question of genetic inheritance still comes up. Kids aren’t dumb. I know parents do these things because they really want kids, but how much do they think about what the child has to endure? Do they assume that because they love them so much, it won’t matter? That their love will over come whatever difficulty? Perhaps. But I think we have again jumped into something without really understanding the consequences.

  3. The Brave New World is here, no doubt. Of course this is mostly a problem of developed countries where people have the money, technology and means to experiment and carry out these procedures. In poor countries hunger, war, disease are still the primary problems. (China, India an other “developing” nations have altered their genetic pools by their selective abortions which are causing populations to have too many males and few females).

  4. Holly and Melody both bring up an excellent point about the sensitivity with which this subject needs to be discussed, re: those conceived through IVF. For many, it is also a formidable obstacle to discussing the matter at all.

    The reality for these human beings is that they were conceived through means constituting a grave evil, and while great care must be taken to point out that they are innocents, concern for their feelings must not beget abdicating our responsibility to teach the truth about this evil.

    For every one human born who was conceived in IVF, they have anywhere from a dozen to three dozen siblings who were intentionally killed in the process. The traditional method has included harvesting a few dozen eggs and fertilizing them. Next, the embryos are sorted and graded according to viability, with the poor candidates simply being discarded.

    Next, a few embryos are implanted in the hopes that at least one will take, while the remainder are frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen, at -321 degrees Fahrenheit, which kills half almost immediately. The longer the others remain, the greater the number that succumb to freezer burn.

    These IVF-conceived adults ought to know of their dozens of siblings’ fates. They have the right to mourn them, and the opportunity to become spokespersons against such a barbaric technology that seeks only the healthiest out of dozens of humans conceived by a couple. We also have a moral obligation to denounce this mentality on the part of parents, atrocities committed all in the name of having a biological keeper.

  5. It should be noted that there are assisted fertility procedures, such as gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) in which fertilization happens inside the body and does not involve “weeding out” embryos, unlike IVF. I’m not sure what the Church’s position would be on something like this, maybe someone better informed could comment?

  6. From the USCCB website:
    Another method, more morally controversial, is called GIFT, or Gamete Intra-Fallopian Transfer. It involves obtaining a husband’s sperm following marital relations and aspirating an egg from the wife’s ovary. Egg and sperm are placed in a tiny tube separated by an air bubble, and the contents of the tube are then injected into the wife’s fallopian tube with the hope that fertilization will occur. Some theologians consider this to be a replacement of the marital act, and therefore immoral. Other theologians see it as assisting the marital act, and therefore permissible. Because the teaching authorities of the Church—the Pope and bishops—have not made a judgment about GIFT, Catholic couples are free to choose it or reject it depending on the guidance of their own conscience. If the teaching authority of the Church should judge the procedure to be immoral, however, GIFT should no longer be used.

  7. The most unfortunate thing about IVF doesn’t come up until the children are old enough to fall in love and want to marry. Think about unknowingly falling in love with a sibling. You have now caused these children to commit a sin unwittingly and endangered the offspring. Honestly, it’s gotten to the point where it is necessary for a genetic test to be conducted to see if the two individuals wanting to get married are too closely matched before they should be issued a license.

    People using IVF and even those using traditional adoption but refusing to let the kids know are setting their children up for a world of future problems.

  8. Brandy, you mentioned that if two kids were conceived through IVF or donation of gametes were to marry and have kids of their own, the couple’s parents would have “caused these children to commit a sin unwittingly.”

    Theologically speaking, I think that’s a shaky conclusion. Doesn’t sin have to involve willfully and knowingly doing something (or failing to do something)? Can someone really sin “accidentally” when they did not know that their spouse was a half-sibling, biologically speaking?

    But yes, the larger point you raise about prolific gamete donors (sperm donors in particular) is a good one.

  9. Another thing that bothers me about many of these methods is that people are purposely creating orphans in order to raise them as their own. In this example, a man donates or sells his sperm and purposely abandons the child he helped to create. (Where I come from, we call this guy a deadbeat dad.) Ms. Williams created this baby while intending to never raise him/her as a mother would. The couple who raises this child purposely keeps the baby away from his birth father.

    Yes, the child will presumably be raised by a loving family, and the biological mother will probably treat her as a wonderful aunt would. But why would we purposely go out of our way to create orphans when so many orphans are created naturally just by life’s circumstances? This creates an atmosphere where babies and the “stuff” that makes them are nothing more than commodities. I first came to this line of thinking when seeing some homosexual celebrities create orphans in order to purposely deny them at least one of their birth parents.

  10. Many of these arguments (complicated family trees, could accidentally marry a relative) used to be made about adoption, which is now seen as a life-giving way to build a family (at least by some of us).

    As for putting how the child was conceived on the birth certificate, that’s ridiculous. Such details about a “normal” conception would not be included on a birth certificate (ie, how many tries did it take to get pregnant, any miscarriages, etc.)

  11. When God is left out of the creation of life in the manner designed for us, we are certain to create problems confronted by Adam and Eve in the garden. The serpent is waiting with his message that we can have everything we want if we only leave God out of our lives. We are witnessing Satan moving ever closer as the USA moves away from being One Nation UNDER God to just Another Nation without God.

    Since all our rights come from our Creator, we do not have the right to children unless God decides we are to be granted that right. It is my firm belief that if you took all those couples who would be childless and all the children in need of loving moms and dads, it would balance out to the last child in God’s design. I find it interesting to see when a couple adopt after trying for years and in doing so say yes to God, how often they are then given a child in creation by our Loving Father.

  12. JoAnn #8: There are many children concieved the “old fashion way” who don’t have a Dad. Dad’s unfortunately aren’t always around—-and in some cases—neither is Mom–for whatever reason. Perhaps the woman you mentioned did concieve that child “the old fashion way” and never married the father or was raped and decided to keep the baby. Just because there is no Dad in sight doesn’t mean he was an IVF child—and what if he was? That would be problem why? Is he less special?

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