Damian Adams is attempting to become the first Australian (and the second in the world) to remove his father’s name from his birth certificate. Here he explains why.
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A birth certificate is a legal document which records information about a birth. Its entries must be truthful (although there would be plenty of cases where non-truthful information is recorded). Historically they were used in ancient civilisation such as Rome, Egypt, Persia, Japan and China (family registers were used as early as 2100 BCE). The certificate we are familiar with originated in England in 1837, primarily for taxation purposes. It records who the father was, who the mother was, and when where the child was born. It has generated a wealth of information for genealogists.
The use of the term “father” has changed over time; what did it mean in 1837? Let’s examine how Noah Webster defined it in his famous dictionary in 1828. The entry “father” reads:
1. He who begets a child; in L. genitor or generator.
2. The first ancestor; the progenitor of a race or family.
3. The appellation of an old man, and a term of respect.
4. The grandfather or more remote ancestor.
So it is clear that the “father” written on the birth certificate was the progenitor, the man who begot the child, the man who provided the sperm to conceive the child. It is expected that both biological parents are listed and not some other person.
However, in donor conception this is not the case.
The father on the birth certificate of a donor-conceived child will normally be the husband or partner of the woman who used donor sperm. For convenience he is often referred to as the “social father”. So while an infertile man may give maintenance, affectionate care, counsel, and protection to a child, for the purposes of a birth certificate he is not the father.
Why are social fathers allowed to feign biological fatherhood?
There are many reasons: easing the pain of infertility, making parenting easier (so that the couple does not have to explain why a different man was listed on the certificate), and deceiving the child about his or her origin. This last factor was important in the early days of donor conception where secrecy was the norm. Recipient parents were told to tell no one, not even the child. Donors were guaranteed anonymity; the child would never find out who their biological father was, nor their kin, nor their heritage nor their medical history.
This unravelled in recent years. Donor-conceived people started finding out that they were not biologically related to their father. This often happened during parental divorce, death or ill-health (fear of family linked disease). Research revealed that donor conceived people fare better when they are told the truth from an early age. Additionally some parents felt that truth was the best foundation for starting their family. So gradually more and more donor-conceived people have learned the truth of their conception.
In some jurisdictions adopted people also had their birth certificates altered. However, several of those jurisdictions now recognise that this was a mistake and have released the original records. In Australia, we have acknowledged that an adopted person was best served by having access to the truth. This development has been widely regarded as a success.
In the Australian state of Victoria changes have been made to accommodate a truthful approach and incorporate more information. Once a donor-conceived person turns 18 he or she can obtain an annotated birth certificate with more information regarding the birth. Subsequent documents contain details of the donor conception and sperm donor. In fact, the pendulum might possibly swing in the opposite direction, towards an abundance of information. Some reformers want to accommodate all reproductive technologies and modern family constructs by listing the biological father, the biological mother, mitochondrial source (if mitochondrial replacement therapy was used), the surrogate mother, and legal parents 1 and 2 if they are not the biological parents. (Note: this article is not about an ethical or moral stance on such reproductive technology practices just a recognition that they do exist).
While truthful certificates are a welcome development, they do little to help those already born – like me.
In my own state of South Australia, the law states that the welfare of the donor-conceived person must be paramount. In light of this how do we solve this issue for those that are already born as a result of donor conception such as myself? Should we change the original birth certificate?
I was conceived in 1973 from an anonymous donor whose code name was RE. I have been searching for information on my biological father for over 25 years, but after the birth of my daughter this intensified. I do love my social father, my dad, but the presence of his name on the birth certificate does not reflect the facts. So currently I am trying to change my birth certificate. Since my biological father is “unknown”, I have applied to replace my social father’s name with the word “unknown”. I do not have the option of having both my biological father and my social father listed on my certificate in South Australia.
I do not need a piece of paper to tell me that I should love the man who raised me. I loved him because of who he was as a person and what he did for me, not because a certificate tells me so. Nor should he need a piece of paper to reaffirm for him his position in my life. What a birth certificate certainly is not, is a certificate of ownership. We do not own our children. We merely guide them along and nurture them until they can leave the nest.
What I do need is an accurate and factual record of my conception and birth. By enshrining deception in the law, the government has been complicit in enabling parents to deceive children about their origins.
Now I was blessed that both dad and mum always told me the truth about my conception. Such honesty was extremely rare in the 70s. Even the doctors had told them to keep it a secret. I shall be forever grateful for their wisdom. They taught me to stand up for what I believe in — and this is what I am doing now. I strongly believe that I am continuing on my dad’s legacy of seeking and telling the truth by making this stand. His legacy also lives on in my name.
As it currently stands, if any of my descendants research my family tree they will be led down the wrong path. Yes, they will be linked to the Adams clan and this is still important, but it is not their flesh and blood. Both biological and social families are important. Some may feel that this erases the importance of that social family and those connections but I do not see it that way. This is just a reflection of the facts.
Family is what you make of it. Other documentation can be implemented to ensure that recipient parents are recognised as the legal parents. In this jurisdiction legislation already stipulates that the husband/partner of the woman receiving the treatment is recognised as the legal father. Changes to current birth certificate formats can also accommodate this.
This is something that our society needs. My dog has a more accurate birth certificate than I do. How is it that animals can have a more accurate family tree than a person? Is that not dehumanising?
Currently my application to change my birth certificate is before the courts. It may or may not be successful. It has only been done once before — by a donor-conceived woman in the UK earlier this year. While the outcome is important for my own life story, I feel that I am fighting for all donor-conceived children. We are not lower than animals and we deserve to be given an accurate record of the circumstances of our birth. We deserve the unvarnished truth. We can handle it.
Damian Adams is a medical researcher in South Australia.