We're not your real parents

There’s a cartoon doing the Internet rounds. A mum and a dad look down at their little girl: “Sarah, I’m afraid we’re not your real parents. You were made with sperm from Germany and an egg from Denmark from an Italian man and a Swedish woman, born to an English surrogate, rejected because you were a girl, adopted by Californian lesbians, looked after by a Cuban nanny and found by Derek here in a skip when you were three”.

Little Sarah looks bewildered. She’s in good company. Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) have created thousands of people.

It's a genomic revolution.

But like stranger adoption, there has been next to no public conversation on the outcomes.

Back then they framed stranger adoption within the historical shame of illegitimacy. This was a failed experiment in social engineering. But our collective amnesia ensures we never talk about it.

Now, within that silence, a new generation of disinherited people is being born.

The genomic revolution is replete with social, scientific and human complexity. But the ramifications are hardly touched on.

Instead of engaging with this we stick to the idea of a couple struggling with infertility. Our couple visits a specialist to have their gametes extracted. They create an embryo that is then implanted in the intending mother. It’s a private medical issue, only a few steps removed from natural conception.

There’s nothing wrong with this picture. Except, like the myth of successful stranger adoption it doesn't match reality.

Inside the ART industry, there's little distinction between the two types of children. One, conceived with medical help from its parent's gametes is born to its natural mother. The other curated, from an anonymous gamete lookbook, a surrogate and its parent’s bank account.

Rather than make those distinctions we look to Hollywood to define the issues for us. In the movie, The Switch Jennifer Aniston’s character is looking for a sperm donor. Her friend played by Jason Bateman’s asks: “What sort of qualities would you be shopping for? It’s a throwaway line in a rom-com with a twist. In The Kids are Alright the sperm daddy enters the lives of a lesbian couple and their twins. They make a mess of the consequences, tune it for bittersweet comedy, and ignore the real issues.

Films like these reveal how normal it has become to acquire a family in these ways.

In Los Angeles, so many are ART conceived. There, teenage cryokids check their donor numbers to make sure they’re not ‘hooking up with a syb.’

Many of us are unaware of how far science has advanced and how unprepared New Zealand is.

Currently, in New Zealand, we are looking to loosen regulation to allow the creation of a market to import and export gametes and embryos. England is assessing bio-prospecting and has allowed three-biological-parent IVF. Germany has debated pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the spectre of eugenics. In India, they colonise the wombs of the poor and reproductive tourism is a hot-button issue. In Spain, a shortage of donor eggs has given rise to research into the creation of children from eggs gathered from aborted fetuses. In the US where anything goes if you can afford it, the production of twiblings is on the rise. While saviour siblings are no longer rare. Clinics author traits such as hair, eye colour, height, muscle strength and skin colour. In Australia, a leading fertility clinic is listed on the stock exchange. They run a chain of cut-price clinics. Another Australian clinic sidesteps local laws on PGD by owning a clinic in Thailand. While also in Thailand an illegal surrogacy slave ring was recently uncovered.

In New Zealand, the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) assesses these technologies. It was set up to plan policy and advice specific to New Zealand and is open to public submissions.

But in reality, since the disbanding of The Bioethics Council in 2008, we do not have a public forum. (one of the National Party’s first actions on coming into power.) So very little public discourse takes place on any of these issues.

Instead, we have the fertility industry working as an active advisor to the ministry. They insist they are trust-worthy to lead all fertility regulation and decision-making.

Just as the church did back in the 50's as they helped frame up adoption legislation.

Then it was the Anglican and Catholic churches and the Salvation Army. They played up the sin of illegitimacy and the sanctity of marriage. They created the fantasy of mothers happily giving up their babies to save them from shame.

In the end, it does not matter if you use science or morality to seperate people from their heritage. The result will always be the same - disenfranchised people, turned into commodities to satisfy a religious, social or financial agenda. Try being fully human when that is your legacy.

Barbara Sumner