Couplenormativity in the fertility clinic: creatively making families by matching gamete donors with single women recipients in private sector care (by Riikka Homanen)

The following text is a modified version of the panel speech given by Riikka Homanen at the launch event for the Research Network of Singlehood Studies that took place on 16-17 December 2019 in Tampere.

In my research I have studied couplenormativity in relation to heteronormativity and homonormativity in the context of fertility treatments, as part of a larger research project on social relations in reproductive care. I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork in private fertility clinics in Finland which until very recently were the only places offering treatments with donated gametes to single women alongside straight and lesbian couples. I have not looked at single men or gay couples because they cannot have families thru ARTs because surrogacy is banned in Finland. I have particularly been interested in thinking about couplenormativity through the room and potential left for creativity to enable different kinship and families. My research results suggest that the care practices both maintain and alter couplenormative and heteronormative assumptions in relation to making kin relations and family.

According to my observations, the default and idealised subject of care at the fertility clinics and in the legislation regulating that care is still in many ways a (heterosexual) couple where at least one of the intended parents is the genetic parent of the hoped-for child. This means that the so called full donation where both the egg and the sperm used in the in vitro fertilisation come from donors is not often recommended at the clinics, while it does take place in on occasion. Genetic connection and relatedness are perceived as of importance for emotional wellbeing in the family.

The Finnish legislation regulating ARTs (Act on Assisted Fertility Treatments 1237/2006) and its wording on the use of donor gametes encourages the mimicking of biological kinship reproduced through heterosexual sex in a couple setting. With regards to matching donors and recipients, the legislation states that ‘the attending physician shall select gametes whose donor resembles in appearance the respective parent of the child to be born’ (Act on Assisted Fertility Treatments 1237/2006, Section 5(3)). Furthermore, the law brakes appearances to five characteristics that medics are regulated to use in matching of donors and recipient intended parents and on which the recipients can present wishes for. They are eye and hair colour, skin tone, height and ethnic origin.

Basically, what is said in the law, then, is that the gamete is being donated to a (heterosexual) couple to ‘replace’ the gamete of the infertile intended parent in the couple. This way of regulating ART arguably renders the third reproductive party – i.e. the donor – invisible by making both parents “pass” as genetic parents. This is when the most culturally idealised model of two genetic parents and thus genetic link deemed as the best bases for emotional attachment is not possible. The idea behind this is that if the children pass as genetic offspring family emotional life and relationships are safer than if they don’t pass as one’s own. Obviously, this kind of thinking presumes characteristics are inheritable.

Especially single women are faced with a common psychological concern over fatherless and one-parent households at the clinics. These concerns often have to do with having a large enough support network to cope in family life and being particularly vulnerable when confronted with outside attention on lack of resemblance and/or genetic relatedness between the parent and the child depending on if that is known. Single women are subjected to different kinds of ‘protection measures’ as a result of this at the clinics, such as recommendations to accept a donor who resembles their family ‘environment’ – that is, a donor that resembles in physical appearance genetically related men in their extended family, or at least their own (perceived) ethno-racial-national appearance and belonging. In this context, however, we must also acknowledge that women themselves also wish for donors like these, as if such donors might be better suited to the (hoped-for) family. For instance, in my data there is a single woman wishing for a white skinned Finnish looking sperm donor.

However, singlehood as well as nonheterosexuality seem to open up spaces for creativity in family-building, because single and homosexual people sometimes come under less pressure than their heterosexual or coupled peers to conform to certain family norms. In my study this boils down to some of the professionals acknowledging the inherent presumptions in the rationales of care as provided for heterosexual couples. In my interviews and informal chats with professionals, some indicated that the general guidelines need not apply to, especially, single women.

At some clinics at least single women have more say in regards to what kind of a sperm donor they would like to have than couples do. While there is a strong recommendation at the clinics for all the intended parents to accept a donors who resembles the intended recipients as closely as possible or in the case of single women “the extended family environment”, single women are granted more choice as some of the medical staff acknowledged the legislation’s inherent presumption that donor gametes are provided for heterosexual couples to ‘replace’ the gamete of the infertile intended parent. It does not make sense to them to apply the same matching rationale to single women. Why would a child not fit in a family where the father could look like whatever one claimed he does?

Even this selective and exclusionary rationale in matching that I perceived at the clinics built around whiteness could sometimes be broken. The logics was that matches between donors with dark skin tones and recipients with fair skin tones were sometimes rejected, but matches could be made more easily between donors with fair skin and recipients with dark skin as dark skin is seen as more inheritable than lighter skin tone. I was told about ordering, for example, Indian sperm from a Danish sperm bank for this single woman who is a white ethnic Finn.

Interestingly it also seems that some clinics may enforce resemblance-matching more strictly on lesbian couples and not just hetero couples than on single women. This is the case even though lesbian couples could have children with the help of a man (outside the clinic) who does not resemble them or their genetic relatives in terms of physical characteristics or origin – just like single women. This implies that lesbian couples are offered a homonormative family model, in which certain homosexuals are invited to join particular practices without questioning the heteronormative rules and power relations embedded in them.

Finally, also the imperative on some genetic connection to the child-hoped for was sometimes broken for some single women when they were granted both egg and sperm donation, i.e. the full donation, treatment. Clients who had been attending the clinic for some time were especially considered to be eligible. I was told that because of the long-term client-professional relationship, the professionals felt that they knew these clients well enough to be sure they could cope with a (fully) genetically unrelated child. Hence, in principle, single women whose eggs could not be used for one reason or another could have their own biological – but genetically unrelated – children through donor conception

This blog post is based on an article published in Sukupuolentutkimus-Kvinnoforskning-lehti (2/2018) and a book chapter submitted for publication in a collection on creative families.

Biography

Dr Riikka Homanen is currently working as an Academy Research Fellow at Tampere University. Her research explores social relations, such as kin, class, gender, sexuality and race/ethnicity, in (assisted) reproduction. More recently, she has inquired into the markets and marketization of reproduction, reproductive outsourcing and mobilities linked to the transnational fertility industry. You can read about her work and projects in detail at https://www.riikkahomanen.net/about-me/

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