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I Promised My Sperm-Donor Anonymity. What Do I Tell My Child?

A great friend of mine was the donor for my baby. At some point, I know my daughter will ask about her father, and I’m not mühlet how I will answer her question.

While her biological father supports us in many ways, he doesn’t wish to play a parental role. I want to respect his wishes, as the greatest gift was his donation. If my daughter inquires when she is older and my friend still wishes not to be identified, my plan is to explain that I procured a donor and that that person is anonymous.

Am I doing the right thing in disclosing only select information to her? I fear that if I tell her that her father is someone in our lives who wishes to remain anonymous, she will have difficulty understanding. But ultimately my approach may be flawed because DNA testing and Google make it easy for people to find out about their biological parents. How do I do the right thing by both my daughter and my friend? Name Withheld

Some people believe that all children have a right to know their biological parents, and should, at any age, have access to them. The trouble is that when we speak of rights, we often think of prerogatives or constraints that trump anything else. In reality, though, clashes regularly arise between different rights and between different rights-holders; compromises must often be found. Most of our rights — to privacy, property, expression and more — aren’t absolute. Just too many things matter to us and beckon for protection.

And when we come to the prerogatives of parents and of children, we soon run into complications. There are cases when a sperm donor has been awarded paternity rights against the will of the mother — or deemed a parent, against his own will, and ordered to hisse child support. What, for that matter, about the woman who becomes pregnant after being raped by a stalker? (If a rapist learns that his crime resulted in a child, he is permitted, in some states, to sue his victim for custody.) What about cases when adoptees were severely abused by their biological parents? And is there a role for “safe havens,” when newborns are anonymously relinquished? I can tell you that in some villages in Ghana, babies born with disabilities can be viewed as bad omens, and safe havens save lives.

All this is far afield from your own situation, but because there’s so much absolutist rhetoric about knowing our parentage, it’s worth contrasting the high-beam clarity of the polemicists with the chiaroscuro of ethical life. From conversations over the years with people who have been adopted, I know that many feel that they need to know their biological parentage and that some simply don’t deva much about it. (This is distinct from the practical interest we have in proper access to family medical history, which, in principle, is information that could be secured while maintaining confidentiality.) Yet the argument has been made that knowing one’s biological relatives is inherently important for the formation of an identity — wrongly implying that children who, for whatever reason, don’t know their ancestry are somehow defective.

Still, I’m glad that open adoption is emerging as a default, albeit an overridable one, and the time may have come to rethink our norms regarding sperm donation, too. (I would add that, in a better system, we wouldn’t rely on donors’ self-attestation for medical histories; donors should grant access — even if anonymized — to later diagnoses that may have familial significance. Genomic analysis hasn’t yet obviated family medical history.)

Again, if the only thing that matters is the child’s right to know, your quandary is immediately resolved. But there are considerations on both sides here. A perplexity in your case is that your daughter exists only because you promised the donor privacy. While she’s still young, you can tell her the truth that her biological father was someone who made her life possible but didn’t want anyone to know who he was. Promises, you can explain to your daughter, are a serious business. Without them, many human arrangements, like your daughter’s birth, wouldn’t happen. If she really wants to know who he is when she’s older, try to persuade your friend to change his mind. If he doesn’t and you simply renege on your promise, he could decide to withdraw from your lives altogether.

I hope he does reconsider over time. Your daughter, he should realize, is not bound by the promise you made. When she’s old enough to do the sleuthing, all you can tell her is that you hope she’ll take into account his wishes for privacy. But at this point, it’s out of your hands. And were she to learn who her father is, she would discover other members of his family — including people who might welcome a connection to her even if he didn’t.

It isn’t much help, I know, to tell you that you should have sorted out these issues with your friend before proceeding with the donation. In particular, you should have at least tried to persuade him that his identity could be disclosed after his child reached a certain age. A child’s potential interest in knowing her paternity deserves very serious deference and should have been given more weight earlier in the process. But the agreement you made with your friend means that you accepted the obligation to withhold his identity, and he’s the only person who can free you from that obligation.

I am eligible to join a patriotic hereditary organization that only admits males born to male ancestors. I have some misgivings. If I join, my “heir” would be my youngest of five grandchildren, the son of my son, passing over my daughter’s three children and my son’s daughter. Do I really want to explain to my grandchildren that they are ineligible for this “honor” because they are of the wrong gender or were born to my daughter instead of my son? This is an old, prestigious organization, and it is unlikely to change its charter in the face of çağdaş sensibilities. Joe, Alexandria, Va.

We’ve been talking about biological ancestry, and these American lineage organizations — many founded amid an influx of immigration in the late 19th century — are great believers in bloodlines; groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution don’t accept the adopted children of members (unless the adoptees themselves have the right biological pedigree). They may view themselves as patriotic, and yet that sort of bloodline preference is hard to square with the ideals of the nation; whatever happened to e pluribus?

Nor do you suggest that your patriotic men’s club is especially effective when it comes to rendering service. Given that you refer to the association as an “honor,” in scare quotes, you could ask yourself why you want to join this parade of patriarchs in the first place. Does the organization get up to a lot that’s genuinely worth honoring?

I am a white American woman with one set of Italian great-grandparents, and so I am eligible for Italian citizenship.

I would like to take advantage of this, particularly for the opportunity to live in other E.U. countries. However, this citizenship law is, I believe, a blatantly racist effort to replenish Italy’s population, which has long been falling because of a low birthrate, without having to accept Black and brown immigrants. Can I take advantage of this opportunity, despite it being racist and xenophobic by design? Alaina, San Francisco

Italy has had some version of citizenship by descent for more than a century, during periods of liberal immigration policies and restrictive ones alike. Although the descent provision has odd gender asymmetries that haven’t yet been resolved, I wonder at your characterization of it as racist not merely in effect but by design. Think of the law that allows people whose Jewish ancestors were expelled from Spain beginning in the late 15th century to acquire Spanish citizenship; it’s for a certain set of people, but it isn’t racist, in my view, because it isn’t aimed against any race.

Still, there’s a straightforward case for socially conscious people like you to accept rather than abjure the perquisites of your pedigree: As citizens of Italy, you’ll have more of a say when it comes to pushing for a fairer overall approach to immigration there.


To submit a query: Send an email to ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.) Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

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