Beautiful Sin. Directed by Gabriela Quirós. New York: Women Make Movies, 2014. 56 minutes.
Anonymous Father’s Day. Directed by Jennifer Lahl. Pleasant Hill, CA: Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, 2011. 43 minutes.
Human reproduction and childbearing are becoming markets on a global scale. The politics of reproduction and health is captured in these two documentaries. Together they raise this question for me: will the birth of children through assisted reproductive technologies and biogenetic substances lead to new forms of state involvement, such as restrictions requiring full anonymity of donors? Costa Rica’s ban on in vitro fertilization (IVF) is the subject of the first documentary. The rights of donor-conceived children to know their sperm donor is the central theme in the second documentary. The protagonists are the stakeholders.
Beautiful Sin is a stunning account of the clash between religion and science. After an aggressive campaign by anti-abortion activists and the Catholic Church, in 2000 Costa Rica become the only country in the world to outlaw IVF. In a convoluted argument the Church found IVF immoral because it results in the death of embryos that do not implant in a woman’s womb. In short, Costa Rica’s judges decided that the country’s “constitutional right to life” covered embryos, which is how IVF became banned. This decision has broad implications for Latin America. As the narrator states, “the region is in the mist of its own cultural war and IVF is one of its battles.”
The ban plays out in the international arena when a case is heard in Washington, DC. In 2008, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended that the ban be lifted as it could also influence women’s ability to access contraception and abortion. While the commission’s interpretation of the right of embryos received world attention, this is only the beginning of a continued battle within Costa Rica.
The documentary presents several amazing stories of the circumstances that lead various couples to seek IVF. One woman was sterilized without her knowing; another woman married a man whose physical disability leaves him unable to conceive through intercourse; and a third couple has an unspecified problem with fertility. The accounts move from the pre-ban period when IVF helped couples create a child to post-ban accounts of couples whose dreams of a child are now in limbo and who have become activists hoping to overturn the ban. In effect, children are valued in Costa Rica, but the rights of embryos take priority as the Costa Rican government controls reproductive health care.
Anonymous Father’s Day features another tension within the reproductive community about donor anonymity and the rights of donor-conceived children and markets versus regulations.1 This documentary centers these debates around the idea that children have the right to know their genetic origins.
Three adults who did not learn that they were donor conceived until they were over the age of 18 are featured. Shocked to learn this family secret (when their dad died or parents divorced), they are in search of their genetic identity. Based on their experiences, these protagonists call for a ban on anonymous donors and also raise questions about the commodification of gametes.
While these adults raise important questions, the film does not fully capture either the shift in the population of people using donors (e.g., from heterosexual parents to single-mother and two-mother families) or when these parents are likely to disclose.2 First, the three adults featured were all born at a time when medical personnel did not recommend revealing donor conception. In the past decade policies surrounding disclosure have changed. There has been a significant shift toward openness and transparency following the recognition that this knowledge is important to a child’s identity. It was also easy to hide donor conception in early times—as the three adults in this documentary describe—because children born to heterosexual parents had a “social” father. As lesbian and single moms organized around reproductive rights and also as the use of sperm donors by heterosexual couples declined (due to even newer medical technologies), different families have become the majority consumers of sperm donors.3 The timing of disclosure does vary by family form, and psychologists have pointed out that by the time children have completed preschool they grasp that not having either a father or a mother warrants an explanation, so single mothers and lesbian couples are more likely to disclose than heterosexual couples.4 The shock of donor conception is rare today; among single mom and two mom families, a child’s belief that the donor is also a father is rarely at stake.
Although this documentary also raises important issues related to the ethics of using donated sperm and about the industry that provides this service, it unfortunately conflates adoption and donor conception, appropriating adoption language. The three adults presented feel that they were “abandoned” by an industry that protects donors and, in turn, their “true” father abandoned them. As much as these donor-conceived children—like adoptees—perceive that they are missing pieces of their genetic identity, sperm donors were never birth parents who gave up a child. Donors do not even know if a child was born from their sperm or how many children share their DNA (a secret not revealed by the industry). Yet, even when donors are identified and the child, upon turning 18, can write a letter to their donor (not necessarily meeting him), it is rare that donors become “fathers” to children who share their genes.5 Equating donors with ideas about birth parents romanticizes an earlier social relationship that never existed between donors and their genetic offspring.
Finally, the documentary argues that children have rights to know their “father.” I agree that when children who want to have more information about their donors turn 18, they should be able to so. Their rights are missing from an industry’s “deal” of anonymity between intending parents and donors. Yet, the scholarly literature finds that not all children care about their donor or feel that they are missing a piece of their identity without this knowledge.6 Overall, the general point that donors are “protected” and children have no rights is important. An open access system would give those children who want more information about their genetic heritage that ability.
Whereas state involvement by Costa Rica denies intending parents desired children, the fertility industry denies children their right to know more about their genetic origin through protecting donor’s anonymity. In this sense, both documentaries can be used to explore questions about IVF in relation to rights vs. privileges, the role of the government in regulating reproductive technologies, the impact of capitalism, and how individuals experience the process—as potential parents, as parents, and as children. Both documentaries are welcome additions to course materials. I will be using them as part of my social science seminar called “Contemporary Reproduction.”
1 Naomi R. Cahn, The New Kinship: Constructing Donor-Conceived Families (New York: New York University Press, 2013); I. Glenn Cohen, “Rethinking Sperm-Donor Anonymity: Of Changed Selves, Non-identity, and One-Night Stands,” Georgetown Law Journal 100, no. 2 (2012): 431-47.
2 Laura Mamo, “Queering the Fertility Clinic,” Journal of Medical Humanities 34, no. 2 (2013): 227–39.
3 Approximately 83 percent of the population using donors are either single mothers or same-sex couples.
4 J.E. Scheib, M. Riordan, and S. Rubin. “Choosing Identity-Release Sperm Donors: The Parents’ Perspective 13-18 Years Later,” Human Reproduction 18, no. 5 (2003): 1115-27; Diane R. Beeson, Patricia K. Jennings, and Wendy Kramer, “Offspring Searching for Their Sperm Donors: How Family Type Shapes the Process,” Human Reproduction 26, no. 9 (2011): 2415-24; Diane Ehrensaft, Mommies Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families. New York: Guilford Press, 2005.
5 Rosanna Hertz and Margaret K. Nelson, Random Families: Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings, and the Creation of New Kin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
6 Joanna E. Scheib, Alice Ruby, and Jean Benward. “Who Requests Their Sperm Donor’s Identity? The First Ten Years of Information Releases to Adults with Open-Identity Donors,” Fertility and Sterility 107, no. 2 (2017): 483-93; Hertz and Nelson, Random Families.