Sumner Burstyn on The Dolce & Gabbana Backlash

Who gets born?

By Sumner Burstyn.

Who gets born?
Who gets born?

BACK IN THE 1960’s New Zealand was a world leader in closed stranger adoption. We used morality, religion, coercion and worse to remove children from single mothers and give them to married women. And we used false birth certificates to scrub clean the history of the child and the supposed shame of illegitimacy.

Then around the mid 80’s society began to recognize the injustice of divesting people of their past, their genealogy and history. We began to understand closed stranger adoption as a profound form of identity theft.

And yet, here we are in the personal rights obsessed 21st century doing it all again. Where once we used morality and religion to deny a past to a designated group of people we now use science.

Thousands of people are being created using anonymous gametes, IVF, and surrogates or gestational carriers.

And like last century we are again framing the public discourse in the narrowest possible way.

Just ask Dolce & Gabbana. Sure calling people conceived through IVF ‘synthetic children’ was clumsy. But the huge public backlash was telling. D&G dared to step outside the accepted framing of any discussion on Assisted Reproductive Technologies.

Read any mainstream media on the issue and the focus is squarely on either eliminating prejudice around who can have children or the amazing advances in reproductive science.The rights of the people created is barely mentioned.

An article in The Independent about 50-year-old new mother Diana Williams is a perfect example. She conceived her twins in Spain specifically because she wanted to match her ethnic background. Williams said it also appealed to her that Spanish egg and sperm donors are anonymous. “My feeling is that anyone who has donated for altruistic reasons would be unlikely to want someone to come to contact them at 18.” 

Williams may be a good parent but somehow she missed the extreme irony of wanting her twins to match her genetic heritage while denying them their genetic heritage. Instead, she has made a little book called “Our Story,” which explains all about the help she got from the clinic.

Identity as a concrete concept would hardly occur to any of us if it were not denied in some way. The thought of ‘having an identity’ is not relevant when ‘belonging’ remains your fate, a condition with no alternative.

‘Who am I?’ may seem like a question at the core of being human. But until recently in our human journey, identity was rooted in time and place, determined by birth. Very few occasions arose for questioning our provenance.

In our slumbering selves, we go way back, not to the moment of our birth or even conception. We go back to the dark reaches of our forebears. Some cultures sing to their ancestors, some dig up their bones and worship them, others keep their ashes in finely carved containers and some mark their graves for centuries. These silent conversations with our dead are how we make our stories real. We are here because of them and their echoes inform our lives.

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit says ‘to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.

To create children with no recourse to their genealogy is wrong. No child starts life as a blank canvas ready for their commissioning parents imprint. Your desire for a child does not trump the rights of the person you create to be fully human. No amount of eye, skin, hair, height or ethnic matching or a book about your fertility clinic will give your child the most basic thing they will eventually crave – a real story and an authentic identity.



  1. Another excellent article by Sumner Burstyn. This sentence basically sums it up for me. ” No child starts life as a blank canvas ready for their commissioning parents imprint”. Very good writing, she makes an salient point.

  2. Well goodness – offensive to adoptive parents, offensive to people who were adopted, somewhat oblivious to the fact that the biological children of traditional heterosexual couples don’t get any choice about whether they are born or not. Probably quite offensive to Maori as well given that whangai and the organic, not necessarily hereditary system of whakapapa has a looser approach to whanau than Ms Burstyn would permit. Fascinating.

  3. Hi Andrew, as editor I think it is important to respond. I cannot figure how you took offence to the points made in this article.
    The writer Sumner Burstyn has articulated a complex set of issues that connect our modern cultures to science to our wants as families and parents. Her writing here explores many variable outcomes and how some of these may impact on those at the centre of these real-life situations.
    What offence can be distilled from this? The methodology used successfully defines a clarity or argument that is progressive.
    You may not agree with the propositions within this piece, but surely you can see why the issue is important to many.

  4. I am not sure that the author is aware but in NZ (and I believe three states in Australia) anonymity is prohibited and donors must make their identities available to the offspring when they are 18. Thus to say “here we are doing it again…” is probably not accurate. Furthermore, this study showed that “new families” are doing well (so far)

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