Sound Off: Response to Pennings Article in BioNews

Sound Off: Response to Pennings Article in BioNews

megaphoneIn an article recently posted on BioNews, Guido Pennings, a professor of ethics and bioethics at Ghent University (Belgium), attempts to substantiate the claim that people conceived through donor insemination do not benefit from being told the truth about their conception. Pennings’ path to this conclusion follows logically flawed reasoning and cherry-picked findings from select research papers that appear to support his bias, while contradictory facts are ignored. My interpretation of the text is Pennings’ over-arching intent is to cast doubt on existing research, established best practices, and basic human values to prop up his own patient-driven perspective on donor conception where secrecy “may still be the most preferable option”.

What struck me as most troubling about Pennings’ article is how an ethicist could swat away fundamental moral premises that would typically serve as logical entry points to a debate about donor conception such as ‘children should be told the truth’ and ‘children have a right to know their genetic origin’ because they are not “scientific facts”.

Pennings believes the question of whether donor-conceived children should be told the truth about their origins is a “very contentious issue” and until sufficient empirical evidence is available to support the ideas above, counselors and psychologists must not push these beliefs upon prospective parents because it violates their right to autonomy.

In reality, there is no controversy. Donor-conceived people are people, and all people deserve to know the truth about where (and who) they come from. Our rights are human rights and don’t need to be discussed in a separate context that permits secrecy and lies. We don’t need Pennings to sign off on this; his flawed logic and impossible to prove theory that boils down to “what you don’t know about yourself doesn’t affect you” holds about as much weight as a set of monkey bars constructed from toothpicks. Extraordinary claims like this call for compelling evidence, and Pennings offers none.

Meanwhile, donor conceived people have spoken and the consensus is clear. Ninety-five percent of respondents in the We Are Donor Conceived survey believe it is wrong for parents of donor conceived children to keep their child’s method of conception a secret from their child, and 91% of respondents believe sperm banks/clinics do not adequately understand or respect the emotional needs of donor conceived people.

Those seeking informed discussion about the ethical issues of donor conception should look to Vardit Ravitsky’s Autonomous Choice and the Right to Know One’s Genetic Origins and Michelle Dennison’s Revealing Your Sources: The Case for Non-Anonymous Gamete Donation. Olivia Montuschi, co-founder of the Donor Conception Network, also wrote an insightful response to Pennings’ text here.


Top image (“Megaphone Connection“) by Free Press/ Free Press Action Fund, licensed under Creative Commons.


Erin Jackson is the creator of We Are Donor Conceived, a resource center for donor conceived people around the globe.