Saturday, March 7, 2009

Assisted Pregnancies

Before we move on to talk about ‘traditional’ non-paternity events I’d like to mention some of the ways that modern science appears to be complicating the family historian’s lot.

Let’s start with artificial insemination, one of the older methods of assisting women whose husbands are infertile to get pregnant. Sperm donors deposit semen that is stored until a recipient chooses the donor from a list and it is then injected in the woman’s uterus at her peak period of fertility. Until recently, sperm donors remained anonymous and many couples who used artificial insemination did not inform their children that their social father was not their biological father. This sets up the classic NPE situation.

In recent years, some states have set up voluntary sperm donor identification registries. Donors who are willing to be identified register and children they sired can find out who their biological father is. Some men whose description and profile proved popular have discovered that they have dozens of children and seem rather bemused at the concept.

In vitro fertilization is a technique usually employed to allow couples who for some reason cannot conceive naturally to generate a fertilized egg that is then implanted. Sometimes multiple embryos are implanted to insure that at least one will ‘take’. Normally, the husband sperm and the wife’s ova are used for in vitro fertilization, but this is not necessarily the case -- a sperm or egg donor could be used. The donor could be related (e.g., the husband’s brother or the wife’s sister) or unrelated. If the resulting child is not informed of the nature of their conception, the usual NPE situation is set up.

A case that illustrates the perils of in vitro fertilization occurred in the Netherlands. A Dutch couple used their own sperm and ova to produce embryos that were implanted and resulted in the birth of twin boys. One of the boys, however, was clearly not the husband’s – he was darker skinned and looked part Indian. In fact, he was. The fertilization lab had used the same pipette to transfer sperm to fertilize ova for two successive clients and sperm from the Indian man from the first couple had stayed in the pipette and fertilized one of the Dutch woman’s ova.

Another recent practice, that of surrogate motherhood, can also result in an NPE. Surrogates have the option in most states to renege on their contract and to keep the child they have carried. In some cases, this may be regardless of whether it was their ovum or that of the woman from the employing couple.

Ova donors set up a situation parallel to that of sperm donors. And embryo donation, encouraged in some states to preserve unused embryos from in vitro procedures, presents us with another case where a woman can get pregnant and carry to term a child that is completely unrelated to her or her husband.

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