May 16th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Impending collapse of Australian agriculture

EDITORIAL: Implications of the budget black hole

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd backs down on climate change

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: IMF's global outlook: expect the worst

MANAGED INVESTMENT SCHEMES: Behind the collapse of Timbercorp

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Re-inventing the wheel of international trade

CHINA: China sees US as dying Roman empire

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Taiwan's WHO entry breakthrough

UNITED NATIONS: UN anti-racism conference blames Israel

ARTIFICIAL REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY: Does family matter? Ask the kidsÂ…

POPULATION: One-child policy for Australia, says green group

ABORTION LAWS: Further threats from pro-abortion fanatics

RUSSIA: Russia faces catastrophic population decline

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Ageing population adds to financial crisis / Turn back the clock / Obama axes school voucher program

CINEMA: Shielding one's eyes from the truth - 'Good'

BOOKS: HEAVEN AND EARTH - Global Warming: the Missing Science, by Ian Plimer

BOOKS: WORLD WAR II: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Stalin, the Nazis and the West, by Laurence Rees

BOOKS: WAR AND MEDICINE, by Thuyavan with John Whitehall

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Does family matter? Ask the kidsÂ…

by Tim Cannon

News Weekly, May 16, 2009
For too long, children's interests have been overlooked in the debate on IVF technology and surrogacy, writes Tim Cannon.

The next time an Australian government launches an inquiry into artificial reproductive technology (ART), surrogacy or some other family-related policy area, I will be tempted to submit a highlights reel from Channel 7's runaway ratings hit, Find My Family.

Every week the program tracks down and reunites parents and children who have been separated - usually decades earlier - by adoption, family breakdown or some other long-distant mishap. And every week it concludes with the same, climactic reunion of parent and child.

In truth, Find My Family indulges in the very worst of manipulative "reality" TV. Obstacles are exaggerated out of all proportion; the payoff is delayed until the very last. Often the subjects look self-conscious and stilted, as they sit in front of the camera hoping that the emotions raging inside them are the right ones, and that these are being appropriately conveyed to a national audience of strangers.

Raw emotion

Then, suddenly, the pretence will drop. A moment of raw emotion tears through the sickly-sweet soundtrack. A mother, in the midst of a cliché-laden pre-recorded video message to her son - a boy she put up for adoption when he was three weeks old - breaks down with a helpless apology. I'm so sorry, she says. I didn't have a choice. I had to work. I couldn't look after you. I did it for you.

For his part, the son is a beaming, blubbering mess.

Although the intimate details of the lives of complete strangers are really none of our business, for once being a fly on the wall is not about titillation. We are not fishing for scandal here. On the contrary, Find My Family beams an unmistakably wholesome message into living-rooms across Australia: family matters.

It is a message that, week after week, resonates with more than a million viewers. It is a message that taps into the very essence of our being, because family does matter - a lot. In fact, for the children seeking their parents on the program, family means everything.

Which is why I would like to sit our legislators down in front of a few episodes of Find My Family. The program's message flies in the face of a political agenda which insists that family does not matter, and that biological links are irrelevant.

ARTs have been available in Australia for decades, allowing infertile couples to use (sometimes anonymously) donated gametes to conceive children. Last year, Victoria passed legislation allowing lesbians and single mothers access to ARTs. Victorian legislators also legalised altruistic surrogacy, as has the government in Western Australian. The national council of attorneys-general is currently proposing uniform laws which would make altruistic surrogacy legal across the nation.

Both donor-conception and surrogacy offer unimaginable relief to adults who are desperate for children, but who are unable to conceive. Indeed, it is worth remembering that nothing about either infertility or same-sex attraction necessarily dampens the natural desire to have children. A legislative policy which seeks to satisfy the yearning for offspring is nothing if not well intended.

But both donor-conception and surrogacy sever the natural bond between child and parent, and, as the subjects of Find My Family unrelentingly demonstrate, severing that bond is a very big deal.

It seems fair to conclude that deliberately and consciously inflicting such traumatic separation on a child is utterly unjustifiable. Yet this is exactly what donor-conception and surrogacy do, en route to appeasing the desire for children in those who could not otherwise procreate.

And therein lies the problem: surrogacy and donor-conception invoke an inevitable clash between the rights and interests of adults, and those of children. But somehow this clash, which should dominate the debate, is ignored, or at least cast to the sidelines.

One of the chief diversions from this fundamental clash is the question of what kind of family structure children need. Thus it is suggested that children don't need to be raised by their biological parents. The author of a children's book which seeks to "normalise to children that there are many ways to conceive a child" recently shrugged off criticism and public outcry, saying: "All the research shows that in terms of outcomes for young people, family connections and warmth is more important than family structure..." (Melbourne Herald Sun, May 4, 2009).

It is a convoluted message, and it must be said that, given that donor-conception and surrogacy are only very recent possibilities, the extent of their impact on children will not likely be clear for some decades yet. The scientific community is divided, and studies which purportedly show that children who are not raised by their biological parents fare no worse than children who are, are countered by studies which show that being raised by one's biological parents is the best guarantee of healthy development.

Developmental outcomes

But even if one were to accept that "in terms of outcomes" - and here we are considering primarily psychological, social and other developmental outcomes - family structure is less important than other factors, it is somewhat beside the point. Developmental outcomes for a child stolen from a poor family and raised in the King's court may be wonderful, but it does not justify the theft.

The more pertinent question is, should we deliberately create and raise children in a way that prevents them from being raised by their genetic mother and father? Perhaps more fundamentally, we might ask: what exactly are children entitled to?

As Australian-Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville has suggested, these are unfamiliar questions because, until recently, there has been no need to ask them. Alternative methods of conception simply did not exist. Now that they do, such questions cannot be ignored.

In this regard, the responses of donor-conceived persons themselves are instructive.

Bill Cordray has written: "What is it like to be conceived through donor insemination? Infertility experts do not know. The social scientists do not know. The politicians do not know. No one knows because no one has actually asked us, the people who have been created through donor insemination..."

Lyn Spencer, another donor-insemination child, has written, "I long to know who my biological father is and to meet and speak with him at least once. I search for my half-siblings in other people's faces. We have a right to know our identity." (See News Weekly, July 16, 2005).

In an address to the Queensland University of Technology Applied Ethics Seminar Series in 2001, donor-conceived Australian Joanna Rose said:

"It is unfortunate that there has been an assumption that we, as donor-conceived people, would not feel connection and then loss in regard to our blood relatives. While many of us have developed deep attachments and loyalties towards those who raise us, there are fundamental questions regarding our identities which leave gaping holes."

Such sentiments are shared by thousands of donor-conceived Australians who make up support and advocacy groups such as Tangled Webs, whose website declares that "[a] child should only be removed [from his or her genetic parents] in extreme circumstances as a last resort for their safety. The desire to provide children for infertile couples does not override the child's need for and right to this vital relationship with his or her genetic parents."

What is manifestly clear is that, for many donor-conceived people, the very practice of donor-conception involves a fundamental breach of the child's rights.

Professor Somerville has suggested that, if children's fundamental dignity is to be adequately protected, we must recognise in children two inherent rights: 1) the right to be conceived with natural biological origins, that is, from the natural sperm of one living adult male, and a natural ovum from one living adult female, and 2) the right to know the identity of one's biological parents and, wherever possible, to be raised by such.

To recognise these fundamental rights is to place the interests of children first. It demands that, as prospective parents, adults must consider the impact of their procreative choices on the children they intend to create. If the manner and circumstances in which a child is created result in an inevitable breach of that child's rights, then such a course of action should not be freely and deliberately embarked upon.

Unintended consequences

Here can be seen the key difference between donor-conceived children and children separated from their parents by unavoidable necessity. Whereas in the case of the latter, separation is the unintended consequence of unforeseen circumstances, in the case of the former, the separation of the child from his or her genetic parents is an intended outcome.

Recognising these rights in children is fundamentally inconsistent with the practice of donor-conception and surrogacy, and is inconsistent with the creation of children intended to be raised in same-sex families. This is where current public policy seems to be missing the point.

Seeking in earnest to appease the disappointment of infertile couples, and to eliminate discrimination against women and same-sex couples, legislators have seen fit to secure the rights of such persons to conceive children using donated gametes or surrogacy. This is problematic for two reasons.

First, safeguarding rights of access to ARTs and surrogacy effectively authorises the persons who make use of them to seriously breach the child's fundamental rights by deliberately separating the child from his or her biological parents. Authorising certain persons to deliberately disregard the fundamental rights of others is antithetical to the nature of any democratic system in which all persons are equal before the law. What's more, it is doubtful that any legislator or lobbyist would, upon consideration, find such an outcome acceptable.

Second, recognising a right to access ARTs and surrogacy is tantamount to recognising a right to a child. But as Tangled Webs succinctly states on its website, "No-one has the right to a child. To claim the right to a child is to treat that child, another human being, as an end to satisfying one's own desires, as an object and not as a person..." To demand the right to a child is to treat children as property, in the manner in which slaves were once considered the property of their masters, and women the property of their husbands.

Unfortunately, the current legislative momentum suggests that these negative effects of surrogacy and donor-conception are likely to increase in the coming years. But as the soaring popularity of Find My Family shows, Australians intuitively recognise the immense value and importance of natural family relationships. What's more, this recognition will inevitably grow more acute as the numbers of donor-conceived children continue to swell, each of them asking: Who am I? Who are my parents? Who gave you the right to do this to me?

When it comes to donor-conception and surrogacy, the interests of children have been overlooked for too long. Already too many have suffered the trauma of separation from their parents and families. It is time for a new approach. It is time to demand that children's rights to natural biological origins be protected by the law.

- Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Australian Family Association.

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