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19 March 2015

Children: the ultimate consumer product?

Children: the ultimate consumer product?

About four weeks ago I made an inquiry with the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA). I had just watched a documentary about the increasing numbers of British women who were attempting to conceive using donated sperm from abroad.

These women desperately wanted their own children but were single or in a same-sex relationship and had ruled out adoption. The women were choosing private agencies abroad which had 'relaxed' rules and a lot of personalised information on each donor. The women chose the biological father of their child based on a photograph and certain favourable characteristics. I have huge moral and ethical objections to the creation of children in this way but the fact that this was going on was not news to me.

My specific question to the HFEA was: can a single man 'commission' his own child using his sperm, a donated egg and a surrogate? My theory was that if it was already legally possible for a same-sex couple to do so, and it was possible for a single woman to do so, could a single man? I wondered if there was already in law, a de-facto 'right' for a single man to commission his own child because of the equality laws preventing discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status. If this was indeed the case, then the law had now developed to the point where essentially anyone, outside of any relationship, could commission a child using IVF treatment and surrogacy.

Although I have not yet heard back from the HFEA, I got an answer to my question when this news story broke last week. Kyle Casson, a single gay man, has just adopted a child, his biological son, conceived with his own sperm, a donor egg and carried by his mother, the surrogate. You might need to read that again. Legally, Kyle was also the brother of his son. To put it another way, his mother gave birth to both her son and her grandson. The case had to go to court for an adoption order to be made and the court said that what had happened was 'entirely lawful.' This case shows that the answer to my question was not only possible in theory, it was already a practical reality in the Casson family.

From the rights of an individual vs society, to the wellbeing of the child born into these arrangements, to the implications for family – even moving away from the specifics of this case – the legal, moral and cultural mine-fields it opens up are enormous. The law effectively considers IVF treatments and surrogacy arrangements as 'goods and services'. And so children have become the ultimate consumer 'product'. Broadly, under these market principles, it would be discriminatory to prevent certain categories of people from having the opportunity to access these 'services' or 'products'. Any opposition to these developments could presumably be framed as anti-equality. The rights of adults win out at the expense of important family relationships. Throughout this whole process, children are further and further removed from their biological parents and consequently family becomes increasingly complicated to say the least.

Strong families are vital to a flourishing community. Families have always been messy. Children have always been born in less than perfect circumstances to less than perfect parents and family has always been defined as much broader than the 'nuclear' family. Extended family relationships across different generations, adoption and fostering have kept the concept of family healthy and inclusive. Yet at the core, an important part of family has always been about children born biologically to parents living together in a committed relationship. This is an important social norm.

For Christians, the Bible is clear that children are a gift from God. Children were given a special place in Jewish culture and in the early Church. Again the biblical concept of marriage between a man and a woman would seem to confirm modern findings that children do best within marriage between their biological parents. While absolutely acknowledging the pain of childlessness for many families, the move towards 'consumer children' is clearly not good for the wellbeing of society.

The modern trend to drastically redefine the boundaries of marriage, parenting and the process of creating children risks leaving the concept of family meaningless. When an individual can engineer their own children according to their own desires, serious questions have to be asked of the culture which allows this to happen. This case, like many, only came to light at the final legal stage of adoption. It is unbelievable that a framework was not in place to allow medical ethical concerns to be raised and the process questioned at an earlier stage. Surely those on all sides of this debate can agree that this case and others raise the need for an urgent debate on the future of child-creation and family?

David Smyth, public policy officer, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland.

    Photo credit: Michelle Robinson via Creative Commons.