The New Kinship

by Naomi Cahn

Each year, thousands of children are born in the United States through the use of donor eggs or sperm, and experts estimate that there are already more than one million people born via these “donor gametes” worldwide. Twenty years ago, my reproductive endocrinologist suggested I explore donor eggs. Little could he have predicted that I would do so through my scholarship!

CousinTree Kinship.svg From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
CousinTree Kinship.svg
From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

The brave new world of reproductive technology has changed how families are made and how relational bonds are created; it has given women more autonomy over their fertility (albeit at some cost, as June Carbone and I have explored here) and caused a reexamination of men’s contributions to reproduction (here). It has also raised numerous questions for members of these new families, ranging from the best way to disclose to children that they are donor conceived to how parents, donors, and offspring can find one another.   Indeed, no federal law in the United States requires that egg or sperm donors or recipients exchange any information with the offspring that result from the donation. Donors typically enter into contracts with fertility clinics or sperm banks, which promise them anonymity. The parents may know the donor’s hair color, height, IQ, college, and profession; they may even have heard the donor’s voice. But they don’t know the donor’s name, medical history, or other information that might play a key role in a child’s development. And, until recently, donor-conceived offspring typically didn’t know that one of their biological parents was a donor. But the secrecy surrounding the use of donor eggs and sperm is changing. And as it does, increasing numbers of parents and donor-conceived offspring are searching for others who share the same biological heritage. When donors, recipients, and “donor kids” find each other, they create new forms of families that exist outside of the law.

The New Kinship, explores these new relationships. Drawing on scholarship in law, sociology, psychology, and medicine, as well as my own experiences –I am also a board member of the Donor Sibling Registry — the book offers an in-depth look at the new families that have been created people deliberately produce children who inherit at least half of their genes from an unknown individual. It shows how these new relationships complicate the social, cultural, and economic meanings of family, and where the law fits into all of this.

As the book argues, there are two different kinds of new “donor families” that have been formed through the use of third-party gametes. The first, “donor-conceived families,” are families created when a single parent, or a couple, chooses to use donor eggs, sperm, or embryos to create a child. This process not only produces a child but also affects the ways in which partners identify with one another regarding their roles as parents and their own emotional intimacy. In these families, the use of donors literally creates parents and children.

The second type of family, formed through third-party gametes, “donor-conceived family communities” or “donor kin families or networks,” involves two different sets of relationships based on shared genes: (a) those between the donor and resulting offspring; and (b) those among all of the offspring produced by that donor’s gametes and their discrete families. These extended donor kin networks could include dozens (or even hundreds) of people who are all linked via the same donor’s eggs or sperm. While the individual families are connected by genes, a traditional marker of family, they have few of the other conventional and legal trappings of family life, such as living in the same house, pooling financial resources, or enjoying the legal protections accorded to family life. But people within this second category, people who share a donor link, often think of themselves as kin, part of a close or extended family-type community. As they connect with one another, they challenge traditional notions of what it means to be part of a family. (For advice on how to develop these connections, see Finding our Families). Anyone—and everyone—who has struggled with questions of how to define themselves in connection with their own biological, legal, or social families will recognize many of the issues explored in this book.

Naomi Cahn, George Washington University Law School, on her book, The New Kinship: Constructing Donor-Conceived FamiliesThe book is reviewed in the February 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here.




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