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Secrets, lies and anonymity: a Q&A with filmmaker Barry Stevens
There's nothing to fear from openness, says filmmaker Barry Stevens, who was conceived using anonymous sperm. But secrets and lies cause harm.
After his father died, Barry Stevens learned from his mother that he'd been conceived using an anonymous sperm donor. This was the 1950s, in Britain, before the days of donor numbers and sperm banks. Back then, some man in another room simply provided a fresh sample and a patient accepted it.
It bothered Stevens that he was not allowed to know who the man was. When Canada was looking to create a law on assisted reproduction, Stevens testified that anonymity should not be allowed. Almost 20 years later, his testimony still makes for powerful reading.
To no avail, though. The Canadian law does not require a donor to be known to the people created from the donation.
In 2001, Stevens' award-winning film, "Offspring" came out. In 2009, he made the film "Bio-Dad." Now, Stevens has just completed a third film about sperm donation, "The World's Biggest Family."
"The World's Biggest Family" airs on CBC Docs POV, Thursday, October 1, at 8pm.
Subsequently, on CBC Gem and elsewhere.
Below is a conversation I had with the filmmaker.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
That there's nothing to fear from openness. Or...there's less to fear from openness than from secrecy and lies. That's what I would say.
This film feels a little more political than some of your others.
It was meant to be. It was meant to be angry and irritated.
You gave evidence to Parliament before the Canadian law was even written. Are you disappointed in where we are all these years later here in Canada?
Oh, God, yes, absolutely. I resent what they did.
It's like one of my sisters, Becky, says, towards the end of the film — she thought it was all just in the past, but she goes onto Facebook groups and into chat rooms and a lot of this stuff is still going on.
Lesbian parents and Single Mothers by Choice usually do tell the truth. And nowadays, there's a concerted effort on DNA sites and on the Donor Sibling Registry. But there are still people who don't know they were conceived using a donor. Many, many people who don't know. So the climate of secrecy and lies continues.
I still meet people who have not told and don't intend to tell.
Why do they tell you?
Isn't that interesting?
They always tell somebody.
Because it's important. And it's a hard secret to keep.
If somebody was saying to you, "I have in this brown manilla envelope the name and photograph of your biological father, and it's sitting here on the table, but I'm sorry, you can't have it," I think most people would recognize that as not right.
No government or institution should conspire to prevent you from having this information. It's important information and it belongs to you.
If the Canadian law was yours to rewrite, what would you change?
I would make it so that the only people who could be used for donor conception were those who were willing to be identified when the child gets to be old enough.
And there should be a central registry. The difficulty is the provincial and federal thing in this country. But there are all kinds of ways in which the provinces coordinate their work. There's no reason why they couldn't put together a central registry.
Don't cheap home DNA tests make a lot of this less urgent now?
Yes, a lot of it is moot now anyway. Steve, the donor in my film who is a body builder, he didn't put his DNA on any website. A cousin of his was on there, and he showed up as a cousin of Derek, the donor offspring. Derek wrote to him and said, "Are there any medical students in your family?" and then the cousin wrote to Steve. So you don't even have to be in a database yourself.
You actually have a scene in your film where Steve, the donor, and Derek, the donor offspring, and Derek's parents, are all sitting around the table talking.
Yes. And I don't think anyone's ever filmed a donor and an adult donor offspring and parents sitting around a table like that before. I was impressed with how generous the dad was. It shows one doesn't need to fear the openness.
It's the saddest thing in the world that my father thought — and I think he did — that I would reject him if I knew that he wasn't my biological father. Maybe when I was ten years old and I was mad at him or something, but I don't think so, not even then, and certainly not now.
I still dream of him. He was my dad. I don't dream of Wiesner.
People ask, "Who was your real dad?" My real dad was my dad.
But you accept that parents have genuine concerns. First, there's the shame and embarrassment of not being able to do this without help. And then the fear that the child will be more interested in the biological family than in their own family. It sort of shows that we all do believe biology matters. But it probably matters less than those parents think.
It matters, but not as much as they fear. Which is the irony, right?
That's absolutely right.
There's this huge hypocrisy. I was talking to a young lesbian couple and they had one child already, and I asked the mother who was not the biological mother if she felt any different, and she said no, it was absolutely the same. It means absolutely zero to her. And that biology really doesn't matter.
And then literally thirty seconds later, she said, "We're going to go back for a second child and we're going to use the same donor so that the children will be related."
When the story came out about those middle-aged guys who discovered they'd been swapped at birth, everybody said, "That's so terrible!" People immediately get that. But at the same time, in our case, or in the case of adoptees, they say, "Oh it doesn't matter. You should be happy you're alive. Your parents loved you!"
If it's so important for parents to go back and get the same donor for their second child, and if it's important for you to use donor conception as opposed to adoption, because you want that physical connection yourself as a parent, then it shouldn't be that surprising that it has some importance for us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
"World's Biggest Family." CBC Docs POV.
Also listen to a documentary out last week by one of Stevens' half-sisters:
"How a Toronto woman discovered she has up to 600 half-siblings." The Doc Project, CBC Radio 1.
Photos supplied by Barry Stevens
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