Friday, July 3, 2015

Secrets and lies: why donor-conceived children need to know their origins

Jennifer Power, La Trobe University

In all Australian states and territories, laws are now in place to ensure that when children born via donor conception turn 18, they have a right to access information about the identity of their donor. However, research suggests that most heterosexual parents who conceive via donor conception never tell their children.

Donor insemination became widely available in the 1980s with the emergence of sperm freezing technology. However, in these early days few jurisdictions had clear regulatory frameworks around donor conception and record keeping was often inconsistent.

The lack of regulation allowed for, and was facilitated by, a culture of shame and secrecy around infertility and donor insemination. It was common for medical practitioners to advise parents not to tell their children they were donor conceived. The prevailing wisdom was that anonymity and secrecy was better for children, families and donors.

Victoria was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to introduce laws banning anonymous gamete (sperm, eggs and embryos) donation and requiring donors to consent to the release of identifying information to donor recipients aged 18 or over. These laws came into effect in 1988.

By 2005, anonymous donation was prohibited nationwide. However, many donor-conceived children still struggle to access information about their donor, due to laws not being retrospective in many states, or because records have been destroyed.

When Victorian donor-conceived children born after the introduction of the law were due to turn 18, the Victorian Infertility Treatment Authority in 2006 ran a campaign entitled “Time to Tell”. This encouraged families to talk to their children about being donor conceived.

As the use of new reproductive technologies had become more common, stigma around this had decreased. This brought concerns about the rights of donor-conceived children to the forefront. The new laws supported the rights of children to access information about their donor, but this did not necessarily support parents to tell their children they were donor-conceived.

However, studies had begun to reveal potential problems that arose from not telling children. While in general, people who are donor-conceived are not disadvantaged in terms of well-being or connectedness to their family, problems can occur when they learn of the circumstances of their conception later in life.

When this happens, people may feel betrayed by their parents, leading to resentment, confusion and distress. This may be particularly destructive if a person inadvertently discovers they are donor-conceived, rather than being told by their parents.

Alongside this, there is an emerging body of research which shows that telling children they are donor conceived does not damage their well-being, particularly if they then have the option to learn more about their donor.

Donor-conceived children aren’t disadvantaged, as long as they’re told about their circumstances. KatLevPhoto/Flickr, CC BY-NC

These days, clinical guidelines generally suggest doctors and counsellors encourage parents to tell children about their donor conception.

Despite this, most heterosexual couples who conceive children using donor sperm do not tell their children. In Australian studies, fewer than 35% of couples surveyed had told their children they were donor conceived. This is consistent with overseas research, which suggests the majority of parents never tell their children.

There are multiple reasons why parents choose not to tell their children they were donor conceived. Some are concerned their child will feel different or “not normal”. For others, the pain of infertility is raw and avoiding the issue is emotionally easier.

Some parents intend to tell but never find the right time or words to do this. But a common concern is that children will no longer see their “non-genetic” parent as their real parent.

Biological relatedness is central to idealised Western notions of family and kinship, even though the reality of contemporary family life is much more complex than this. Step and blended families, families created through adoption or fostering, same-sex parented families and networks of close friends all involve non-biological family relationships. Many children are raised by, and form strong parental attachments with, adults to whom they are not genetically related.

This is not to say that biology is irrelevant. Many people’s sense of place in the world is connected to their biological heritage. Donor-conceived people often feel that knowing about their donor is an important part of forming and understanding their identity. But biology in itself does not create family relationships.

The problem with secrecy around donor conception is that it contributes to the notion that biology is more important than lived family ties. It implies that a child having a genetic link to someone else undermines the importance of those parents who have raised that child.

By contrast, openness about donor-conception allows parents to emphasise the strength of their family connection and includes their children in the creation of the family narrative.

Laws that ensure donor-conceived people have access to identifying information about donors encourages greater openness around donor conception; although some people argue the laws need to go further, mandating parents to tell their children.

The complexity of this issue points to a continued need for resources to support families to talk to their children about donor conception.

The Conversation

Jennifer Power is Research Fellow at Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

In families with same-sex parents, the kids are all right


This piece  by Jennifer Power originally appeared on
 The Conversation

A central argument made against same-sex marriage is that children born into these marriages will be disadvantaged: they will grow up with inappropriate gender role modelling, be bullied at school and suffer poorer emotional well-being than their peers.

Same-sex attracted people may come to parenthood in many ways – though former heterosexual relationships, as a foster parent or a step parent. Increasingly, lesbian couples and single women are forming families using known sperm donors (a friend of the couple) or a clinic-sourced anonymous donor. Male couples are also increasingly turning to egg donation and surrogacy services to become parents.

The 2011 Australian Census counted 33,714 same-sex couples. Around 4,000 of these couples had dependent children living with them. But this is likely to be an under-representation, as not all same-sex attracted people declare their relationship in the census and single parents who identify as same-sex attracted would not be identified.

In the United States, of the 594,000 same-sex couple households in 2011, 115,000 reported having children.

People may not agree with gay marriage on moral or religious grounds. But the argument that it harms children does not stack up against current evidence.

In 2010, American researchers published results from a meta-analysis of 33 studies comparing the well-being of children raised by opposite-sex couples with children raised by same-sex couples. This study found no evidence that children raised by same-sex parents fared any worse than other children on a range of behavioural, educational, emotional or social outcomes.
The researchers also concluded there was no evidence that children raised by a single parent or same-sex couples were less competent or well-rounded than other children. If anything, studies of single-parent families show these men and women are more flexible in their parenting styles than they are given credit for. Men are capable of gentle, nurturing parenting. Women are capable of setting rules and boundaries for children, while also teaching them football.

What about donor-conceived children?

Political concerns about lesbians’ access to fertility services means the well-being of donor-conceived children has entered debates about same-sex marriage and parenting.

In 2013, the story of Narelle Grech, a young Australian woman who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, hit the news media. Grech was donor-conceived and desperately wanted to meet her biological father before she died.
Grech’s story made a powerful statement about the importance of donor-conceived children having the option to know their genetic heritage. But media reports often gave the impression that every donor-conceived child was searching sadly for their genetic parent.

This is not the case. Some donor-conceived children are highly driven to meet donor parents, some are curious and others aren’t interested. There is no evidence that donor-conception causes children emotional or social damage.

Do children get teased at school?

A 2008 study by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in the United States found many children raised by same-sex parents had experienced or witnessed some form of homophobic harassment at school.

But more commonly, young people reported feeling excluded or isolated because schools did not acknowledge their family makeup. In some cases, staff actively discouraged students from speaking about their families due to a misguided concern that this amounted to talking about sex or sexuality in the classroom.

Other studies have found more mixed results.

Australian research has shown that some children worry they will experience homophobic discrimination and this anxiety may affect their well-being. But most children with same-sex parents do not encounter more frequent or intense schoolyard bullying than other children.

Additionally, children with same-sex parents generally have good social networks and peer relationships, which are a strong buffer against stigma or discrimination.

Is this research reliable?

Studies on the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents have been criticised because most rely on small “convenience” samples. Critics argue convenience sampling is inherently unreliable because people who are healthy and resourceful are more likely to opt in to studies than those who are socially disconnected or less capable.
However, large population-based studies tend to include only a small sub-sample of children raised by same-sex parents. This doesn’t generate the numbers needed for reliable statistical analysis.

Methodological limitations provide fuel for conservative arguments against the validity of these studies. What critics do not acknowledge is that repetition of findings – numerous studies conducted over time and in various locations, all which show children with same-sex parents are doing well – is a major strength of this body of research.

What about same-sex marriage?

Children raised by same-sex parents do better when they are living in a city or country that is more socially progressive and accepting of homosexuality. As such, openly supporting the rights of same-sex couples is one of the best things governments can do to support children being raised by same-sex parents.

Beyond this, funding programs such as the Safe-Schools coalition Australia, which seeks to ensure schools are well-equipped to address homophobia, will have a direct impact on the day-to-day experiences of children with same-sex parents.       



Check out The Conversation


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Long time

Long time, no blog.
 
My apologies. This site has been unattended while I have been off work having awfully cute babies…well just one baby plus one other who probably wouldn’t like being called a baby any more.
There has been so much going on in the area of same-sex parenting in the past months, I don’t know where to start… Surrogacy comes to mind as a topic around which media debate has been raging. For a while, options for Australians to access surrogacy services overseas expanded as commercial surrogacy markets grew in both India and Thailand. However, India has now amended their laws to restrict access to surrogacy services to legally married couples. While, Thailand has cracked down on international surrogacy in the wake of the baby Gammy saga.
This has sparked a complex and fascinating debate about the ethics of commercial surrogacy, and whether it should be legalised in Australia.
On the ‘no’ side of the fence, many feel surrogacy amounts to nothing more than cash for babies. While others argue that the emotional and physical stress which potentially (perhaps inevitably) comes with carrying a child for another person is unacceptable; commercial surrogacy of any kind should be banned because it is vulnerable women who will most likely be drawn into it. The no argument also draws on the rights of the child. Surrogacy, it is felt, inevitably violates the rights of children to have some connection with their genetic parentage.
On the ‘yes’ side, people argue that surrogacy provides an important option for infertile or same-sex couples to become parents and that not all women who chose to be surrogates are vulnerable. In fact, some women find being a surrogate an immensely rich and rewarding experience.  Others argue that allowing a well-regulated commercial surrogacy industry in developed countries such as Australia is the best way to undermine the international market. This will provide better protection to children born via surrogacy, including ensuring information about their surrogate and genetic parentage is traceable. It will also protect vulnerable women in developing countries who are currently becoming surrogates in an environment that often offers only limited protection and care.
This is a debate worth watching. A complexity of issues relating to gender and women's bodies and genetics (see for example Damien Riggs' piece on concepts of what's 'natural' that underpin the debate) -- not to mention poverty and globalisation and the rights of children -- are drawn into a space that is intensely personal and emotional for so many people. I will write more soon.
In other news...
The Work, Love, Play study is drawing to a close (see previous posts for details of this). Over the next 12-months we will continue to publish findings from the study. The following papers and resources are available now:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

He's my mother: motherhood across gender boundaries

By Jennifer Power, La Trobe University


This piece was originally published on The Conversation website.

In the 2005 film Transamerica, Felicity Huffman’s character, Bree, is set to begin gender reassignment surgery when she receives a phone call from a teenage boy looking for his father, Stanley, the man Bree used to be. Bree’s psychiatrist refuses to sign off on her surgery until she resolves her feelings about her unexpected “fatherhood”.

This scenario is primarily a set up for a quirky road trip as Bree sets off to meet her son. But it also reveals a lot about the starkly gendered terms around which parenthood is constructed: How will Bree feel about being both a woman and a father? Is there not an inherent contradiction in these two identities?

Parents who are transgender tend to confront people’s ideas about the possibilities of parenthood. In 2008, American transgender man Thomas Beatie went public about being the first legally recognised man to give birth to a child. The media was aghast with the idea of a pregnant man.

They debated whether he should be seen as male or female, the concept of a transgendered man seemingly difficult to accept. Commentary implied that Thomas Beatie gave away his right to claim a masculine identity when he chose to use his uterus.

As many authors have pointed out, gender tends to be understood in binary terms. You are either a man or a woman, a mother or a father – nothing in between. Transgender people are often understood as people who have “swapped” their gender – a man becomes a woman or vice versa. There can be pressure on transgender people to occupy hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine character roles to “prove” themselves as the opposite gender.

But in reality, transgender identity is often more about not fitting conventional gender patterns. Some people embrace the identity of “gender-queer” to reflect that it is about queering gender, not swapping gender. In this sense, a transgender man who has a child is not always going to see himself as a “mother” who has decided to become a “father”. He may be a mother who does not identify as a woman.

But gender binaries play out strongly in public dialogue around parenthood. Recently, Senator Ron Boswell lamented in the Australian Parliament that the problem with gay marriage was that there is no-one to take a male child fishing, or to the football, in lesbian-parented families. While most people now roll their eyes at such ludicrous gender stereotypes (and women have been known to go fishing), our culture still tends to be highly sensitive to gender norms when it comes to babies.

Women are often vehemently chastised for transgressions in pregnancy or early motherhood: returning to work soon after childbirth, prioritising work over childrearing or choosing not to breastfeed. It is on this level that a transgender man having a baby challenges deeply felt notions about the “naturalness” of motherhood.

Trevor MacDonald is a transgender man in same-sex relationship. By conventional standards Trevor McDonald is a “mother” — both biologically and socially. He gave birth to his baby, he stays at home as primary carer and he breastfeeds. But Trevor is a man and a father.

As a breastfeeding advocate, Trevor has publicly shared touching stories of support from strangers, such as the women who congratulate him for giving breastfeeding a go. But he also speaks about the criticism he has copped when feeding in public. On an airplane a woman felt compelled to publicly shame him, telling him his child needs a “real” breast. A real breast is presumably one attached to a female body, not Trevor’s body, irrespective of whether or not that breast produces milk.

The vitriol is hard to comprehend. Does it matter if Trevor is a man or a woman? He is caring for his child. But people get confused about how to comprehend a parent who might be both (or neither) mother or father — or whose gender status they can’t pinpoint.

As Trevor McDonald has experienced, often when people get confused they get angry. In the same way that so many women face criticism for their choices about motherhood, the “best interests of the child” can become a permission slip to attack an individual for their identity or decisions rather than to engage in any meaningful reflection on why traversing gender boundaries is so threatening.

This is the second part of our short series on motherhood. Click on the links below for other articles in the series:
Part one: A womb of her own: risking uterus transplant for pregnancy

Jennifer Power receives funding from the Australian Research Council, VicHealth, Relationships Australia and ACON and in kind support from Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria and the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities.
The Conversation
This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Guidelines anyone?



As part of the Work, Love, Play study, we have developed a set of Practice Guidelines for health and welfare professionals who might be working with same-sex attracted parents and their families.

I am always a bit cynical about Guidelines. Do they really change much? We all know most end up collecting dust.

But the central aim of these Guidelines was to get people to think about their own practice and whether what they currently do is inclusive or inadvertently exclusive of LGBT couples and families. So, hopefully, even if someone only browses these Guidelines once before putting them on the shelf that will be enough to spark some sort of reflection.


In the development of these Guidelines we spoke to same-sex attracted parents and to service providers (some of whom worked a lot with same-sex couples and some of whom had very little experience). The service providers all expressed an interest in resources that could help them feel more comfortable and confident working with same-sex couples—many said they felt ‘naive’ when it came to same-sex parented families. They were interested in ways in which same-sex couples created their families and family life, but were worried that they would ask the wrong questions or use the wrong words. So our Guidelines are partly educative (what are some myths about same-sex attracted parents? what do same-sex couples value when using services?) and partly instructive (what are some ‘door opening questions’ that will invite people to tell you about their family?).


These Guidelines are free and I am happy to send copies out to parents or to organisations. Just email or call me on 03 9385 5131 (Australian number) for more information or to place an order.

The Bouverie Centre also conducts training for health and welfare services on working with same-sex parented families. If you are interested in more information about this just email or call.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Grim Reaper died in the 80s

The following is a piece I have running today on The Conversation website (republished with their permission).  It is a comment on the Queensland Government's plans to re-introduce a Grim Reaper style HIV prevention campaign. While not directly related to parenting, I wanted to rerun this here because the Queensland Government has (in their wisdom) done all they can to wind back laws supporting LGBT rights – they have proposed changes to civil union legislation which would make existing unions invalid for same-sex couples and introduced laws to prevent same-sex couples accessing surrogacy. Alongside this, they have defunded the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC), an organisation dedicated to LGBT health. Homophobia has no place in public health. The core of Australia’s success in limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS has been the commitment of governments to supporting and funding LGBT led organisations to do what they have to do to get HIV prevention messages out. Defunding QAHC is part of a raft of changes from a conservative government that will have a negative impact on  all LGBT folk in Queensland, especially parents or prospective parents.

Conversation-logo
The Grim Reaper died in the 80s – time for a new approach to HIV prevention

By Jennifer Power, La Trobe University

The Grim Reaper television commercial is infamous in Australia. Reminiscent of B-grade gothic horror flicks, the cloaked reaper stands in a foggy bowling alley poised to strike down a group of deadpan, but “ordinary” looking, people. As the people are bowled down, a voice booms, “at first only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS, but now we know every one of us could be devastated by it”.

The Grim Reaper appeared on Australian television in April 1987. It was a phenomenal marketing success. Some 25 years on, just about everyone who saw it remembers it. In my mind, the Grim Reaper was part of pre-bedtime viewing throughout my childhood. In reality, the ad ran for less than three weeks. I probably watched it only a handful of times.

The Grim Reaper has come to symbolise HIV/AIDS in Australia. It captured the fear and uncertainty of a time when people were not sure what would happen with this virus. It wasn’t clear how large the epidemic might grow in Australia; there was certainly no sign of a cure and available treatments at the time were not particularly effective.

The Grim Reaper campaign was not without controversy. In some communities, gay men came to be associated with the Grim Reaper and were seen as a threat to the community, rather than being victims of the disease.

The campaign was immensely effective at drawing attention to HIV/AIDS. Politically this was important. The Commonwealth government had directed a lot of funds toward HIV prevention and, although the Grim Reaper was not devised as a political tool, the response to it justified this spending.

The Queensland government has decided to resurrect the Grim Reaper imagery in a soon-to-be-screened television campaign designed to inform Queenslanders that HIV infection rates are again on the rise. The ad features an actor dressed as the Grim Reaper costume while the voice-over laments, “we shouldn’t be having this conversation”.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The queer reality of guilt



Do you ever feel guilty about your kids?

Guilty because you work too much? You don’t work enough? Forgot to brush their teeth? Three hours of TV? Won’t eat their vegies? Didn’t read aloud today?

Guilty because your house is cold? They have to share a bedroom? You aren’t the perfect parent? Your relationship didn’t turn out the way you expected? You are anxious and stressed and sometimes snappy?

Do you ever feel guilty because your children might have to deal with homophobia? They might get teased? They might worry?

 
Do you ever feel guilty that you had them in the first place?

That last part is written in a whisper. I feel as though acknowledging some guilts – articulating them, even thinking about them – gives oxygen to a whole set of insecurities that, for the most part, lurk in the darkest depths of my psyche.

Parental guilt is a strange beast. It comes from love, of course. It comes from that animal love that would throw you in front of a train before seeing your child hurt. It's strange and kinda sad that the flip side of this love can be guilt about producing that little source of love in the first place. What use is guilt like that?

But I am not alone. Most parents, it seems, feel guilty.