No, actually they’re your kids.

Ken writes:

In the usual order of things, when a father is also the biological father of his children and the mother is also their biological mother, it seems obvious that the children’s genetic heritage derives from exactly half from the mother and half from the father. After all, the egg has twenty-three chromosomes and the sperm has twenty-three chromosomes which fuse to form an embryo with 46 chromosomes. And it’s natural to infer that since their contributions in this rather narrowly genetic sense are equal, children must be biologically half of their mother and half of their father (Obviously after the birth, the contribution from each parent isn’t necessarily fifty percent). But thinking about some of the possibilities of assisted reproduction and surrogacy seem to call this idea of a biological fifty fifty split into question.

Take a surrogacy situation. The fertilized egg from one woman is implanted into the womb of another. It seems natural to attribute some of the developmental path of the foetus to the surrogate mother. For the embryo is surely influenced by the environment of the womb. The timing of the changes in hormone levels, for instance, must affect how the embryo develops into a foetus. If the environment of the womb can cause a miscarriage that terminates the pregnancy, then it can surely by being only slightly less harmful to the foetus affect the development in various ways (maybe it’s a matter of being out of synch with or uncoordinated with the foetus, rather than being “harmful” to it as such). So, the biological part of the child’s development, the nature as opposed to the nurture, must be split three ways between the father, the egg mother, and the surrogate mother. Say, 40:40:20. (in this case, the contributions of the father and the egg mother are weighted equally, because the sperm and the egg each contribute half the genetic material in the narrowly genetic sense. I couldn’t say whether 40:40:20 reflects the nature of things better than 49:49:2 or some weighting in between, but this doesn’t affect my point).

But now a father doesn’t make any more contribution in the case of a normal birth than in a surrogate one, which means that in the case where a mother provides an egg and bears the child in her womb, then she is more than fifty percent responsible for the biological heritage of the child (the nature side of the nature/nurture dichotomy). In other words, when we take in to account more than genetics very narrowly construed, children are more of their mothers than of their fathers.

That’s my claim and I’m sticking to it!

Unrelatedly, I read recently that most fertility treatment in the UK and Ireland, where it involves donated sperm or eggs, uses sperm from Denmark and eggs from the Ukraine, because these countries allow anonymous donation. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of anonymous donation, this is surely an unsatisfactory situation. Countries that officially think donors have no right to anonymity because their future children have a right to know their biological identity, should ban use of anonymous sperm and eggs. The current situation is sort of analogous to the Irish policy of banning abortion but tacitly allowing women to travel to the UK to have them. If you shouldn’t do something because it is wrong, it’s equally wrong to get your neighbour to do it for you. I would go further and say that the tacit recognition implicit in the toleration of imported sperm and eggs shows anonymous donation should be lawful in the UK and Ireland too.

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14 thoughts on “No, actually they’re your kids.

  1. Katimum

    Surely the womb environment counts as ‘Nuture’ rather than genetic? Don’t think you can get away from the blame (or credit) that easily!

  2. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Quite frankly, as the grandmother of a child conceived with Danish sperm, I find this discussion, at the very least, lacks empathy for those who have not found conception easy.
    The suggestion of what amounts to genetic interference in the womb of a surrogate is to my knowledge a misunderstanding of the process. The influences you describe may be genetic in origin, but such disparity limits viability, it does not actually affect the genetic inheritance.

    1. ken

      I’m very sorry to have given offence, though I don’t see what I said that should have given offence. I was objecting to what I think is a form of hypocrisy of disallowing anonymous sperm in the UK and Ireland and then looking the other way. As someone of Danish extraction myself, I obviously think Danish sperm itself is first class. But I think people in the UK and Ireland should have the option of using UK or Irish sperm if they wish. What’s wrong with saying that?

      The point I was trying to make about the environment of the womb is that it can have an effect on the development of the child. And I take the possibility of miscarriage to be a particularly stark and extreme example of this, but one that is just at an extreme of a continuum. It seems unlikely to me, given that nature usually does things in degrees, that the time in the womb would be a black/white or pass/fail affair, which is either perfect for the baby or ends in miscarriage. If there are degrees of coordination in the uterine environment, then to that extent it seems to me there’s a direct biological input from a surrogate mother (as the case may be). You say any influence may limit viability but wouldn’t affect genetic inheritance. I think this ascribes too much determinism to genetic inheritance. The genes a child gets from sperm and egg may express themselves as propensities to this or that, which is where things like the environment of the womb which exert an influence may have an effect, not perhaps through creating things ex nihilo but by sending development down one path when in another womb may have gone down another.

      Once again, I’m sorry if I’ve given offence. That wasn’t my intention. I don’t have personal experience of these matters and it might change my perspective on things if I had. If you haven’t already had enough of this conversation, I’d be interested to hear how the experiences would change the argument. Thanks for commenting on this obviously painful topic.

      1. Dot

        My ha’penniworth: if we are going to bring in miscarriage, it absolutely should not be assumed that this has anything to do with the environment of the womb as opposed to the character of that particular embryo. But whatever the factors involved I am very uncomfortable with the language of ‘credit’ or ‘blame’. That just seems cruel and misleading in such a connection (not that Ken has been using such terms). It would be useful to have a more precise notion of the biology of the process, which is complex. I think I read Ken’s main point to be that of course the genetic input is determined at the start, but what happens afterwards to the physical development of the embryo is also affected by circumstances e.g. nutrition, and these are lopsidedly to do with the woman who carries the child, be that the genetic mother or not.

        When it comes to sperm donation, the fact that donors in the UK and Ireland are not guaranteed anonymity is a bad thing for people who are having difficulty conceiving. It is usually justified on the basis of the rights of the child, but against that I would be inclined to advance another stage of formation that is surely far more important, to the child’s successful physical development as well as his or her social and emotional growth, and that’s the contribution of the people who love and raise him or her. The position of a sperm or egg donor is surely very different from that of the birth parents of a child given up for adoption, and (one would think/hope) from the child’s point of view as well as from the parents’. Not only does a donor do something that is intended to enable someone else to have a child, not to produce a child for themselves, but the child need have no questions about being abandoned or unwanted by that person: it was never the child, but only a component of his or her genetic makeup, that was provided, and not through a painful renunciation but through a generous gift. So, I would have thought that anonymity for the donor should be no source of unhappiness for the child.

  3. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Surely you see that you essentially suggested – taking it to its logical conclusion – that the British government should have not allowed my granddaughter’s conception on a point which has arguments both for and against.

    1. kenanddot

      As a point of logic, either they should not have allowed it or they should also allow anonymous UK sperm donors. It’s a disjunctive conclusion. I think the present policy is hypocritical.

      1. kenanddot

        Of course it was right to allow it. It would be better, in view of this fact, also to allow anonymous UK donation.

  4. As far as I can recall – and to be honest at the time I wasn’t paying too much attention for various reasons, but when Amelia turns 18 she is able to, if she so wishes, gain access to identifying information about her particular sperm donor.

    The information will no doubt be 18 or so years out of date but it is available to her.

    However, it must be noted, that from the off we have made every effort to make sure that she is aware that how she came about is slightly different from the accepted norm. We have a picture book (from the Donor Conception Network) geared for her age group that addresses her particular case. And as she will pretty much take it for granted that her origins differ in a very slight way from those of her peers, the chances of her wanting to seek out the donor for any reason other than a short note to say ‘Thanks’ are, we hope, very slim.

    Also I would have to weigh in a bit and say that I feel that a great part of Jon’s personality and sense of humour owes more to his step-father from the age of about 14 than to his biological father. And already Amelia takes after both Jon and Chris.

    1. ken

      Thanks for the comment. It’s unfortunate that my comments on sperm donation seem to have been based on a false premise. I thought Danish sperm was anonymous, based on what I read in an Irish Times piece on IVF. I hope you weren’t offended by my comments.

  5. Not at all, it seems that what often is reported seems to be geared towards extremes. I’m now longer surprised at this point that such articles seem to only ever mention IVF as an option and over look the less chemically and procedurally invasive IUI (which is what we underwent).

    When we were notified that a match ( based on a tick form of ideal and preferred donor height, colouring, eye colour, hair colour) had been found for us, we were told that interests the donor had supplied on his form. Kickboxing was mentioned, which I of course discounted as a macho attempt to come across as fit and active; about 4 months into the pregnancy I was less inclined to laugh it off.

    Also we exercised the option to book a family block, so any future children we have will be full genetic siblings.

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