What do donor conception, surrogacy, divorce, and adoption have in common? According to the newly-founded International Children’s Rights Institute (ICRI), they are all practices which violate the rights of children to be born free, to be raised by his or her biological parents wherever possible, and to have a knowledge of the heritage of his or her biological parents. Dubbed “Bonds that Matter” for its focus on these beginning-of-life issues, the ICRI’s inaugural conference gathered scholars, activists, and students from around the country to Simi Valley, California last Friday to discuss the various ways in which these four practices violate children’s rights.

First to speak was Alana Newman, founder of Anonymous Us and speaker on behalf of the many donor-conceived children and adults who, like herself, believe that their lives have been permanently affected for the worse by having been cut off from at least one biological parent. Beginning with her own personal testimony, Newman recounted the behavioral problems that she experienced after realizing that her biological father was paid for his promise to stay out of her life. Newman pointed out that not only do many donor-conceived adults suffer from feelings of worthlessness, grief, and shame, but all of them have no information about half, or all, of their genetic background.

Donor conception can create societal problems, explained Newman. For example, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine recommends (note: These numbers are not based on law, the reality could be much worse) a limit of twenty-five children per donor per population of 800,000. If you do the math, this means that within New York City, one person could have 258 offspring, so the son of such a donor could easily have over a hundred sisters in the same area. The result is that people may unknowingly engage in incest and have consanguineous children, the first of which is prohibited in all fifty states and the second of which may produce unhealthy children.

Next up was Jennifer Lahl, a documentary filmmaker who focused her talk on egg donation and surrogacy. According to the popular narrative, says Lahl, egg donors and surrogates are informed, empowered women who are providing a family with the opportunity to have a child of their own. For Lahl, the truth is not so rosy. Egg donation and surrogacy commodify the women whose bodies are being used and the babies who are thus born.

Women serving as surrogates are often uninformed about the risks involved in the procedures and are more likely to be motivated by financial need than charity, Lahl pointed out. Some surrogates are even shipped across international borders so that contracting mothers and fathers can make use of their reproductive capacity. For Lahl, given that women are expected to provide a service and then leave behind a baby which is—properly speaking—their own, this practice amounts to the newest form of human trafficking. The E.U. Parliament agrees, saying that surrogates are “exploited” as “commodities” on the “international reproductive market.”

The commodification of human life becomes even clearer from the side of the baby.

Lahl presented an advertisement from the Stanford Daily which offered “excellent compensation” for a “genius egg donor.” On the flip side, surrogates are sometimes required by contract to abort babies when they turn out to have less-than-desirable traits. Furthermore, the egg harvesting and fertilization processes often produce a surplus of embryos which are normally frozen and kept for scientific experiments. Far from being the loved and cherished child that these procedures are supposed to create, babies born from this procedure are bought for their traits and created through a procedure whose longterm effects remain unknown to us.

But being born under the right conditions is not enough to keep children’s rights intact after the trip home from the maternity ward; children need to be raised in a stable environment. Jennifer Roback Morse, founder of the Ruth Institute, argued that family relationships form the foundation of a child’s personality. Accordingly, the government has a responsibility to accurately record the identity of a child’s parents on birth certificates and to refrain as much as possible from intervention in family’s lives that disrupts their natural structure.

The most egregious violation of this principle, for Roback Morse, is no-fault divorce. Though no-fault divorce was framed under the assumption that it would make the divorce process simpler and cheaper, allowing responsible adults to easily and quickly dissolve their marriages without legal hassle, what it actually did was allow for unilateral divorce. In contrast to pre-1968 divorce laws, current laws allow one partner in a marriage to divorce the other for any reason or no reason. This had the effects of increasing the divorce rate, decreasing the investments which parents were expected to place in their child’s education, and removing the presumptions of marital permanence and exclusivity. Furthermore, the prevalence of no-fault divorce makes it makes it more likely that children will grow up without a father, which entails a number of well-documented dangers for them, including an increased likelihood of abusing drugs, engaging in promiscuity at an early age, and ending up in jail.

Lastly, the conference attendees heard from C. Catherine Henderson Swett and Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, the first of whom was adopted and the second of whom offered her son for adoption. Adoption, they said, is often cast in the most positive of lights, as it unites a children who need parents with parents who want children. But few people know that adoption law in the United States entails the falsification of birth certificates. When a baby is a adopted, the government issues a new birth certificate which only lists the adoptive parents and bears no mention of the biological parents. Many adoptees are therefore legally estranged from their biological heritage, with no way of finding their biological parents or of finding out about their genetic heritage.

Swett and D’Arcy further pointed out that adoption never provides a full solution to the problem it is meant to solve. It is always the result of a tragedy, that is, the separation of children from biological parents, who rarely have a free choice in the matter. Though they acknowledge that this is sometimes necessary, Swett and D’Arcy warn that the adoption industry is an industry which perpetuations the separation of children from their biological parents by projecting an illusion that adopted children do just as well as those who are raised by their biological parents, which is far from true.

Some of the audience, which was mostly comprised of C-SUN undergraduates, reacted positively to this information, commenting that they had never heard anybody speak about these issues in a negative light before. One student, however, who complained that none of the speakers presented the “other side of these issues” was met with an immediate rebuttal from Robert Oscar Lopez, who said, “I’m confident that you’ll get the other side. The presenters here focused on the aspects of these issues that are almost never spoken about. Almost anything else you encounter on them will be a product of the ‘other side.’” Other students were perplexed by the data on fatherless children, as some of them were themselves fatherless and were “doing okay.” The presenters responded by focusing on the bigger picture, which shows that while some individuals who grow up in broken homes may fare well, that this is the norm is far from the case.

Conferences like this are desperately needed. Children’s rights are too often overshadowed by the related issues of gay marriage and abortion. Since they do not receive much attention, people remain unaware that children’s rights are being violated on a daily basis, right here at home.

Matthew Dugandzic is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Catholic University of America and blog editor of Fare Forward

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