Sunday, July 5, 2015

Adoption, Donor Conception, Both, or Neither? (Part 1)

When we first got our infertility diagnosis, we proceeded straight to trying to adopt.  We pursued private domestic infant adoption, international adoption, adoption from foster care.... all with false starts and dashed dreams and money down the drain, but also with valuable lessons learned.  Five years after first learning of our fertility challenge, our daughter entered our lives.

We had slowly made our way from open adoption to closed adoption back to open adoption with our first donor embryo match.  Two transfers and four embryos later, we were still childless, and I was ready to embrace anonymity once again.  Coming from a strong, Catholic-inspired pro-life stance, I fully believed that the tiny embryos awaiting "adoption" were already humans.  This belief helped me reason why it was morally acceptable for me to "adopt" them even though my then-strong Catholic faith taught that anything related to artificial reproductive technologies was wrong.  I even posted here about how our EA FETs were not IVF.  So desperately I tried to fit into my faith community while still pursuing our dream of parenting a child. 

But then I got pregnant with our daughter.  And then I gave birth to her, at home.  And since then I've nursed her at my breast for over a year and a half now. Recently, I joined a transracial adoption group to try to continue my education in the area of raising a confident, well-adjusted child whose ethnicity I didn't share.  In the process, I've come to see that I actually didn't adopt my daughter.  

There was no legal adoption proceeding, no homestudy, no social worker visits, no one granting us permission to take her into our home and hearts.  No one told us where she must sleep, what she should be fed, or who is allowed to care for her when Alex or I are unavailable.  These are all issues that adoptive parents face as they are entrusted with someone else's child, and often social workers follow arbitrary guidelines as to what is appropriate and safe for a child.  

I wouldn't have been able to cosleep with my daughter had she been adopted.  Not openly, anyway.  I may not have been allowed to breastfeed her either, even if I had been able to induce lactation. Perhaps after finalization of the adoption, I would've been allowed to finally choose who can babysit her, and I'm sure homeschooling wouldn't have been an issue by the time she was old enough to start academics.  But had she been older coming to us, or had her adoption gotten delayed for some reason, these are not decisions I would've been able to make based on my mother instinct of what's good for her.  Rather, I'd constantly be second guessing myself, wondering if this or that decision could be used against me to have my daughter removed from my home.

Another reason I no longer believe that our daughter was adopted is that she simply doesn't share the same often deeply painful losses that many adoptees have.  The woman who carried her for 8 months, with whom she bonded, whose heartbeat and voice she was intimately familiar with by the time she was born - that woman was none other than me!  She was never separated from someone who was once her entire world.  She never has to deal with being rejected by her genetic family.  Her name was never changed.  Her birth certificate was never falsified or sealed. And there was probably little chance of a genetic relative being taking it upon herself to keep any resulting children in the original family by transferring the pre-embryos herself. She does still have the loss of that genetic family, to be sure.  But it is not compounded by implications of rejection. 
A third reason I now don't believe I am an adoptive mom is based on an evolution of my spiritual beliefs.  In pursuing embryo donation and undergoing three frozen embryo transfers, I was deeply interested in the early development of human beings, starting from fertilization onward.  And through this research, I concluded that while human "life" begins at fertilization, human "personhood" doesn't start until implantation. Here's why.

A blastocyst, which is what an egg fertilized 5-6 days earlier is called as its cells divide, is capable of two fascinating feats prior to implantation.  The first is that it can split into two separate blastocysts which then implant separately, growing and being born as identical twins.  One embryo --> two human beings.  Likewise, two ova that are both fertilized at about the same time can proceed to divide and develop into two blastocysts who somehow merge together into a single blastocyst just prior to implantation.  The result is a singleton baby born with two sets of DNA, also known as a chimera.  So two embryos --> one human being.  (Note that we are not talking about two embryos where one simply stops growing, or twins where one simply dies and the other continues towards birth.  We're talking about the physical, genetic merging of two sets of DNA into a single human body.)  

Because of these two phenomenon that occur in nature, I was forced to conclude that human personhood does not begin immediately upon conception, but rather once these two phenomenon have had a chance to take place.  Therefore, once a blastocyst is implanted in the uterine wall, it becomes known as an embryo, and only then does it become a unique human being, one that only needs time and a continuous supply of a healthy environment of the womb in order to grow into a fetus and then a newborn, toddler, preschooler, etc.  The same cannot be said of a zygote or morula or blastocyst (earlier stages of human development).  (See here for my post mentioning how problematic it is to use the term "embryo" for earlier stages of development."

I mentioned that my understanding of human personhood was based on a spiritual outlook.  So far I've only established the science leading up to my point.  Once an embryo is implanted, it is then that I believe God begins to work on that specific individual, forming her or him in their mother's womb. (I'm going to ignore surrogacy here for simplicity's sake, as it comes with its own set of complex considerations.)

The Biblical verses I used to refer to when thinking about how "life begins at conception" are actually more nuanced now.  Psalm 139:13, for instance, states: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb."  Until I learned about chimeras and was reminded of identical twins, I took it for granted that God's job began immediately, with sperm in one divine hand and ovum in the other.  But now I see that while I don't deny God's ongoing role in all of creation at all of its stages, it does not mean that the moment God put his hands together with the necessary gametes, a new person was created.  Rather, it is a process, much like baking, if you will.  And there is a preparation phase that, if interrupted, does not result in a fully baked cake, no matter how much time you give it and even if all the necessary ingredients were there.  You still have to mix, measure, pour, and finally put in a functioning oven.  Then and only then does the timer begin and you can say that you have a cake baking in the oven.

At any rate, adoption is nothing like this process.  Adoption takes place once a fully formed human being is born into a family that for one reason or another does not end up raising that baby.  Adoption leaves nothing to the imagination - a baby is born in one family, but another family takes the child home with them.  It is an artificial way to build a family (by which I don't mean "negative", just that it's not what was intended originally).  Which brings me to another perspective I see often missing from potential adoptive parent discourse.  

Adoption is often framed as a "loving option" or a way to "start" or "grow" your family.  The audience for this discourse is of course the potentially adoptive parent.  It's their family that is being grown through adoption.  The child's family is actually being taken away first, before being replaced by the adoptive family.  The child's first mother's family is likewise being taken away - period - and not being replaced with anything. The goal of pro-adoption terminology is to normalize adoption so that infertile parents can feel comfortable in their role as a "real" parent.  

I remember the discussion of "real" versus some other qualifier before the words "parent" and "child".  Mostly it's adoptive parents who are defensive about having someone imply that they are not a "real" parent.  Many don't like the idea of saying "adopted child" or "adoptive parent" because they feel it takes away from the parent-child relationship.  I was one of these potential adoptive parents.  Yet these same people often don't have a problem demoting the first mother to "birth mother", "bmom", or worst of all, the acronym "BM" (which if it isn't clear is also an acronym for "bowel movement", something most awful to associate any human being with, much less the woman who gave birth to one's adopted child!)

The adoption industry is biased in favor of where the money is.  Sorry, but that's the truth, a truth I already started to realize even as I still hoped to benefit from it.  It is the adopting parents - not the first parents or children - who fund the adoption industry's profit, and so it shouldn't come as a surprise that what potential adoptive parents hear from adoption agencies is precisely meant to be music to their ears, anything to help them feel good about the idea of adopting. 

You may question that potential adoptive parents actually need encouragement in this decision. Perhaps you associate adoptive parents with infertile couples whose only hope of a family is through adoption.  I was often also ignorant of the fact that there is a whole other family-building industry out there that provides an alternative to adoption and is often preferable to adopting: artificial reproductive technology, including donor conception and surrogacy.

To sum up, embryo donation differs from traditional adoption in these ways:
1. There was no legal proceeding to form a familial bond between us and our daughter.  Likewise, there is no involvement of social services judging us worthy - or not - or suggesting how we ought to parent.
2. Our daughter has never bonded with any of her genetic relatives.  She was born to the woman who carried her and who is parenting her.  There was never any separation or loss of current relationship. 
3. Due to my current spiritual views, my daughter didn't come into existence until her pre-embryo implanted in my uterus.  It was my body that nourished her into life; she is quite literally made of my own flesh and blood.  

It may sound as though I am implying through this post's discussion of adoption that I consider my daughter to have been "donor-conceived".  However, it is actually not as simple as that, either.  In my next post, I'll discuss how embryo donation carries different considerations from sperm- or egg-donation.

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