Jemima Lewis: We've created a genealogical nightmare

We need to acknowledge the emotional costs of our reproductive freedom

Saturday 21 July 2007 00:00 BST

Even those of us who recoil from crowds, detest communal activities and are congenitally suspicious of the masses will sometimes find ourselves behaving like lemmings. In the past couple of years, almost all my close female friends have got themselves pregnant, and so have I. It's partly a mid-30s, biological clock thing; partly a fear of being the only sentient being left when everyone else is talking about nappies.

Only one of our gang remains unfertilised, and that is because she is a lesbian. Motherhood takes more planning when you don't have a willing sperm donor in your bed. But she wants to have babies, and is not the kind of woman to be denied. All it takes is one broody gay man and a syringe, and hey presto - the old gang will be back in sync.

Except, is it really as straightforward as that? Liberal dogma - and my affection for an old friend - tells me that children just need a loving home. The "alternative family" is, increasingly, the norm, and besides, the most outwardly conventional family is often the most inwardly screwy.

But doubts can break through even the most dearly held dogma, like dandelions pushing through concrete. Consider, for instance, the child custody case currently going through the Irish courts. A man donated his sperm to a lesbian couple so that they could have a child. But shortly after their son was born, the assembled parents fell out. The lesbians, one of whom is Australian, announced that they intended to move Down Under, at which point the father launched two lawsuits: one to stop them from resettling abroad, and the other to seek joint custody.

This is, as the judges admitted, "entirely novel" terrain for Irish law, which has never yet had to define the legal rights of either sperm donors or homosexual parents - let alone in competition to each other. But in truth, it is pretty novel terrain for humanity. The social and medical revolutions of the past half-century have created a new world of moral complexity.

Earlier this month, for instance, a Canadian woman announced that she had frozen some of her own eggs in case her daughter, who has a medical condition that will leave her infertile, should want to use them when she grows up. If Flavie Boivin takes up her mother's offer, she will give birth to her own sibling, whose grandmother will also be its mother.

According to Josephine Quintavalle, co-founder of the public interest group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, the psychological cost of this reproductive free-for-all is only now becoming clear. "In psychiatry we are hearing more and more of children suffering from identity problems," she says, "and specifically a condition called 'genealogical bewilderment'."

This is not, in fact, a wholly modern condition. The term was first coined in 1964 to describe the confusion and feeling of otherness sometimes experienced by adopted children. Traditional morality gave rise to its own genealogical bewilderments. A family friend of mine has spent much of her adult life recovering from the revelation that the woman she thought was her sister was in fact her mother, while the woman who raised her was actually her grandmother.

Likewise, children conceived in adultery were (and still are) often raised by the cuckolded husband, wittingly or otherwise. A friend recently discovered that the devoted father who tucked her into bed every night was not her father after all. That honour belongs to his (former) best friend. What troubles her most is that her conception was not even an accident: the lovers consciously decided that a secret "love child" would be the perfect souvenir of their romance.

Is it any more genealogically bewildering to be raised by two mothers, or a mother who is also your sister? Perhaps not, except in one respect: that your predicament can no longer be recognised as such. Although any form of difference will always be loudly noted in the playground, polite society no longer dares to venture an opinion about the most contorted of conceptions.

I am not suggesting that children of unconventional families need more judgement in their lives. But neither should they be abandoned. There is a danger that the pious silence of the liberal consensus amounts to an abnegation of responsibility: a refusal even to contemplate those dandelions poking through the concrete.

Tom Ellis, a Cambridge graduate whose mother conceived him using donor sperm, has argued passionately that society must stop turning a blind eye to the anguish of people whose parentage is either confused or unknown. "It is difficult to say this in a way that doesn't shock people or make me sound psychologically damaged, but I don't think I should have been born," he says. "It is a terrible and cruel thing to do to somebody."

Plenty of adopted or artificially conceived children would disagree vehemently. But Ellis is surely right that we need to acknowledge the emotional costs of our reproductive freedom, instead of hiding behind platitude that "any family is OK so long as somebody loves you". It's not.

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