Judith Bancroft emigrated from the UK over 20 years ago, is an adoptee and a mother of 2
teenage sons. For the last 4 years Judith has been Coordinator of
a Mental Health Program for the Perth Division of General Practice whose cornerstone was the provision of a free clinical
psychology service for financially disadvantaged patients of GPs in the Division.
Judith left her job at the end of June to return to University to complete a Master of Counselling degree. She has a BA in Social Sciences after studying Psychology, Mental Health Promotion and Medical
Her brief talk today will centre itself around the ethical debate that is, in her view, largely NOT happening about
the future mental health of those children ‘created’ by the new reproductive technologies.
What should we be learning from Adoption Research?
Are there implications for the mental health of
Children of the new reproductive technologies?
This brief talk is based on my Honours Proposal in 1998 (which although accepted, I subsequently did not undertake). It will take as read, especially to the people at this Conference, the often
fragile mental health of all those in this triad.
Blood ties are central to who we are, our sense of identity, and our sense of self.
On the one had science applauds itself for sequencing the human genome – a feat indeed. The nature-nurture debate looks increasingly ‘tilted’ towards the ‘nature’
end of the spectrum. On the other hand a variety of reproductive technologies
can bring a baby into this world, for couples or even single people who see it as their ‘right’ to have.
What about the rights of the children of these ‘genetic manipulations’ – what about their right (acknowledged
by the World Health Organisation) to know where they came from? Will
society never learn from the unintended consequences of past social engineering?
What happens to the mental health of children whose genetic history may not be knowable? What do we tell them when they ask the question “Where do I come from”.
In accordance with ‘best practice’ in research, I should like to state ‘upfront’ my background,
my biases (for we all undoubtedly possess them) and my allegiances (that is – am I supported by a third party (university
or other institution, government department or a pharmaceutical company!).
I am and always will be an adoptee. After a very long journey in
all senses of the word and 50 years after my mother gave me birth, we were reunited in Canada where she lives with her husband and 3 daughters, my
half-sisters. As my birth was not a cause for celebration, and her
room would not have been filled with congratulatory flowers and cards from a husband, family and friends, I arrived with an exquisite bouquet of 51 baby pink rose buds – each for every year that we had been
apart. There is, of course, much more to this story, but ‘my story’
is not the subject of my talk at this conference – although I am willing to share it at another time if anyone wants
My first degree, achieved as a mature aged student with 2 young sons, eventually emerged as a BA in Social Sciences,
via a circuitous route of Philosophy, Psychology, Medical Sociology and Anthropology and Mental Health Promotion. For the past 4 years I have coordinated a unique mental health program for the Perth Division of General
Practice, which has been very popular with GPs and patients alike. In order to
complete my Master’s and to take my career in a slightly different direction, I left my job at the end of June this
My allegiances – well,
as I have just said, I am now a post-graduate student, I am not employed except on an occasional consultancy basis, and neither
the university at which I am enrolled nor those at which I have been previously enrolled (UWA, Curtin and Deakin) are involved
in this research at the present time, although this topic is likely to be the subject of my Master’s Thesis due for
completion mid 2003. As for being supported by a pharmaceutical company,
well, this isn’t that kind of conference. But it may be in 20 or 30 years
time when anti-depressants will probably be in breakfast cereal and grown-up test tube babies may need an ‘ancestry
pill’ in order to cope with the torment of not knowing who they are.
My biases We all have biases,
even if we are not aware of them. There is no such thing as pure objectivity,
for we all bring to what we do and say, the context of our lives and our lived experience.
So this is me – make of it what you will. You must decide whether
I am ‘qualified’ to write about these issues, or whether being an adoptee ‘disqualifies’ me from commenting
– because I am too close – or too biased?
Its an interesting line of thought isn’t it – whether being uniquely qualified, ‘disqualifies’
me in the eyes of some – my views can be dismissed as – ‘just those of an adoptee’, or pathologised
– or both? Think about it.
I suppose I could be said to have had a vaguely ‘middle-class’ upbringing, my adopted parents both had
their careers, did not divorce and neither were they destitute. (However, this
was not a life of privilege). I am a mother of two beloved teenage sons, 3 cats
and 2 puppies. I am a traveler, a researcher and I still get passionate about
things. I don’t think I am ‘one-eyed’ – that is, I am
interested in other things as well as adoption/identity issues. I can get as
equally passionate and enraged about the absolute futility and idiocy of war with Iraq as I can about my concern for the potential
mental health of future generations created for those who claim it their right to have……………………………………………. This leads me on to my talk today.
This brief talk has one main aim - To raise awareness amongst all involved, including future parents and those who will guide and
counsel them, researchers, doctors, psychologists, ethicists, and scientists to take on board seriously and not in a token
way, the potential mental health problems of future generations of children created by the new and future reproductive technologies.
There are numerous examples of the ‘evidence’ of the trauma associated with being adopted, for all involved. The ripples reverberate throughout the lifespan.
Nancy Newton Verrier in her incredibly important book, evocatively entitled The Primal Wound (which should
be mandatory reading for all those whose paths intersect with those in the adoption triad), talks amongst other things of
pre-natal bonding, the amazing awareness of infants at birth, separation trauma, etc etc.
A secure identity and a strong sense of self come hard-won for adoptees, with often a myriad of major or minor mental
health problems along the way, stemming from original abandonment, grief (often unexpressed) and loss. Children of donor inseminations might know one parent, but only have half the picture, and
could bump into a half-sibling of a ‘prolific donor’ at any time without knowing it. Children of surrogacy arrangements have similar concerns and in addition some of them
are torn between two mothers. The ‘stolen generation’ were wrenched
from their lineage, as were British Child Migrants. All of us have experienced
and are experiencing levels of complexity imposed upon us in addition to those of just growing up in a society where
one in 4 or 5 of us will suffer from a mental illness and according to the World Health Organisation, depression will be the
second most debilitating illness by 2010. That’s only 8 years away.
I maintain that family separation and particularly problems finding out our genealogical heritage do predispose us
and make us more vulnerable to mental illness. [Obviously it is not always possible
or desirable to keep families together – we don’t live in an ideal world, there will always be reasons for children
to need another home, temporarily or permanently.] But can we not
as a society learn from past and present policies and experiences of the very people in whose interest society claimed and
claims to act?
My concern is for the potential mental health of future generations of children, based on the experience of the past
and present experience of all in the adoption triad, and those children born with the assistance of a variety of reproductive
technologies who do not know one or other of their forebears.
I maintain there are grave ethical considerations about bringing children
into this world by technological means that may in the future render their genealogical inheritance not only unknown, but
unknowable, that are just not being discussed. Or are they –
in secret – behind closed doors? There
are debates about the ‘competing rights’ of donors and their offspring, but not as far as I am aware about children
who will be born a result of increasingly ‘sophisticated’ genetic manipulations – is it possible that they
may have no clear genetic parentage – or is this totally far-fetched?
I will leave it to others to debate people’s ‘rights’ to have children, the only ‘rights’
that I want to talk about are those of the child being able to know where he or she came from, both their maternal and paternal
ancestry. Honesty and facts. No
secrets. No lies. No pretence. The bottom line for me is that no children should be ‘created’
by reproductive technologies if their ancestry/genealogy cannot be provided to them.
As I have said, many adoptees have significant problems with their identity, all through their lives, irrespective
of whether they had happy childhoods with their adoptive parents or not. When
adoptees look in the mirror they see nothing behind, no ancestral faces, no history – but it IS knowable even
if our histories are clouded and obscured by secrets and lies, red tape and other people’s rights. Identifying donor information is knowable (although it wasn’t in the era of ‘pooled
sperm’), even if the knowledge is withheld (the ‘competing rights’ argument again). Tortuous as it all is to track and find out, it is, in most cases, out there. Will there ever be a scenario if this genetic information is just not knowable?
I’d like to leap ahead now to a post Orwellian nightmare? Imagine
for a moment yourself to be a child of the not so distant future, totally ‘created’ by assisted reproductive technologies. Condemned to a life not knowing who you are – where you came from,
but even worse – no point in searching – no point in having it ‘drive’ your life – because there
will be nothing to know. You will be at the beginning – and
I do not think it is that far-fetched to say almost a different class of individuals – those created who have no history,
no ancestors – just a piece of paper joining them to another ancestral line.
If adoptees have been second class citizens, then these children will surely be third.
All for the sake of others needs, others so-called rights - and because medical technology can or will be able to do
On the one hand, our genes are recognized to be so important, and the sequencing of the human genome project and all
that will eventually flow from it is undoubtedly ‘clever science’ -
but on the other hand, could access by these children to their genetic inheritance be impossible due to the manipulations
that have taken place? The ‘importance of genes’ argument
doesn’t work both ways, it can’t be used selectively. It
can’t be so important on the one hand and yet denied on the other. How
will we answer them when they ask how this could have happened? Will
they feel different somehow, not born of a human union of love, lust or something in-between?
Shouldn’t we be thinking about this – unlikely as it may seem to some of you? As an adoptee, I feel almost duty bound to fight for them, the unborn of the test-tube, the Petri-dish.
To whom it may concern: for the sake of their mental health, please respect
the basic right of future generations to a knowable genetic ancestry.
I would like to thank Origins for inviting me to present and I thank you all for your time.
Howe D and J Feast (2000) Adoption,
Search & Reunion – The Long Term
Experience of Adopted Adults.
The Children’s Society, London.
Newton Verrier, V (1993)
The Primal Wound – Understanding the Adopted Child Gateway
Press, Maryland, USA.
Webb, S (2000) ed
The Proceedings of the Seminar Assisted Reproduction – Considering the Interests of the Child. The Western
Australian Reproductive Technology Council
Western Australian Reproductive Technology Council, November 2001 Proceedings
from Seminar – Life After ART – Developing Families