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Adoption in Australia: Contemporary cultural, theoretical and political perspectives Monash University, July 3-4, 2008. Wrongful identities? The moral significance of stories told by late discoverers of adoptive and donor offspring status. Helen J. Riley

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Adoption in Australia: Contemporary cultural, theoretical and political perspectives Monash University, July 3-4, 2008

Wrongful identities?

The moral significance of stories told by late

discoverers of adoptive and donor offspring status

Helen J. Riley

PhD Candidate

Queensland University of Technology

Humanities Research Program

Applied Ethics discipline

Supervisor: Dr. Trevor Jordan

dis connected

The author is a late discovery adopted person.

This image is part of a visual art, body art and photography project titled 12 Artrageous Women

initiated by Artrageous Community Arts Centre, Deagon, Qld 4017.

Contact the author for further information -

Background – Helen Riley from own work Body art – Ria Willering Photography – Claire Fletcher


PhD title

'identity rights and genetic origins – the ethical implications of the late discoveryof adoptive and donor offspring status'

  • Late discovery – the discovery as an adult (18 yrs + ) that knowledge of one's genetic origins has intentionally been withheld or concealed.
  • 2.Stories gathered from late discovery donor offspring have been restricted to donor insemination offspring only
late discovery and moral life
Late discovery and moral life

Aim 1.

To privilege the voices of those who have had knowledge of their genetic origins intentionally concealed from them, and the discovery of that knowledge as an adult. These voices have rarely been heard.

Prior research is minimal and undertaken entirely from within a social science perspective


  • Passmore, N., Feeney, J., & Foulstone, A. (2007). Secrecy within adoptive families and its impact on adult adoptees. Family relationships Quarterly(5).
  • Perl, L., & Markham, S. (1999). "why wasn't I told? : making sense of the late discovery of adoption: The Benevolent Society of New South Wales.

Donor Assisted Conception

  • Turner, A. J., & Coyle, A. (2000). What does it mean to be a donor offspring? The identity experiences of adults conceived by donor insemination and the implications for counselling and therapy. Human Reproduction, 15(9), 2041-2051.
  • McWhinnie, A. (2001). Gamete donation and anonymity: should offspring from donated gametes continue to be denied knowledge of their origins and antecedents? Human Reproduction, 16(5), 807-817.
  • has identified feelings of betrayal and loss of trust
  • has only offered individual therapeutic responses
Aim 2.

To reveal the moral significance attached to the feelings of betrayal and loss of trust expressed in late discovery stories.

To do thisutilisingfeminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker’s expressive-collaborative conception of morality which links identity, narrative and moral life.

This conception sees moral ‘problems’ as

“points in continuing histories of attempted mutual

adjustments and understandings among people” (p.35).

Walker, M. U. (2006). Moral repair: reconstructing moral relations after wrongdoing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

research mode
Research mode
  • Stories gathered in written form and through personal taped conversation
    • Twenty-seven stories gathered
      • 22 late discovery adopted persons
      • 5 late discovery donor offspring
      • Age range
        • LDA : early 40’s to early 70’s
        • LDDO : early 20’s to mid 50’s
  • Participants sourced through support groups, on-line discussion groups, media and a specially created website
  • Research is exploratory
  • Aim is to explore the moral dimensions and reveal previously unrecognised markers of moral significance
  • Aim is not to analyse qualitative data from a representative sample/proving or verifying what has occurred/making universalisable claims, highlighting differences, comparative assessments.
    • It is acknowledged there may be differences based on gender, age, social status, health, ethnicity or a combination of these and other factors
Research from within this applied ethics perspective reveals

markers of moral significance

in late discovery stories

who they are,

who they are connected to,

what they care for, and

what they care about


Four areas of moral significance

that are identified as contributing to

feelings of betrayal and loss of trust



'intrinsic trust'

“...fundamental assumption[s] about the world and our safety in it”

“person feels utterly helpless in the face of a force that is perceived to be life-threatening”.

[NB: Substitute identity-threatening for life-threatening]

“when the trauma is of human origin and is intentionally not only shatters one's fundamental assumptions about the world and one's safety in it but also severs the sustaining connection between the self and the rest of humanity”.

Brison, S. J. (1997). Outliving oneself: trauma, memory, and personal identity. In D. T. Meyers (Ed.), Feminists rethink the self. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press p.14-21


Karla, LDA* age 40 – 3 yrs since disclosure

“I felt profoundly betrayed…the brunt of a 40 year joke”

Beth LDDO# age 40 – 13 yrs since disclosure

“I am 27 years old…did it ever occur to you to mention this a little earlier”

Ursula LDDO age 53 – 12 years since disclosure

“…I was left with the mammoth task of reassessing my whole life…a deep sense of loss and grief…anger and frustration”

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity

* LDA - late discovery adopted person# LDDO – late discovery donor offspring

Felicity LDA age 43 - 9 yrs since disclosure

“…absolutely devastated…I was sad, confused, angry, relieved, emotional, bitter, afraid, and an immense feeling of loneliness and rejection and feeling not important and perhaps a feeling of insignificance”

Wendy LDDO age 24 – 2 yrs since disclosure

“shell-shocked…living dual lives…for as long as I can remember dad has loathed my sister and I [and now he admits this is] because we are not his”

Brenda LDA age 67 – 12yrs since disclosure

“I felt absolute disbelief, let down, lied to, and that I had been mistrusted by not being told the truth and had my life living a lie…all these emotions and reactions seem[ed] to join together”



Normative expectations




Karla, LDA age 40 – 3 yrs since disclosure

“obsessed with the unfairness of state-sanctioned laws that prevented me from access to my original birth certificate…[and] shocked when my progressive thinking friends and colleagues did not see [the unfairness of this type of secrecy]…as self-evident, and were completely unfazed by this, and also by donor issues as well…”

Beth LDDO age 40 – 13 yrs since disclosure

Beth comments on the lies that had been told by her mother –

“She’d lied on my medical forms…you lied, I said, you lied”

Markus LDA age 47 – 19 yrs since disclosure

“I had fair skin and didn’t know I was of aboriginal descent”



Personal agency is disrupted

  • Philosopher Susan Brison (p.23) comments on how enormously difficult it can be to
  • “regain[ing] one's voice, one's subjectivity, after one has been reduced to silence, to the status of an object, or worse, made into someone else's speech, an instrument of another's agency”.

Brison, S. J. (1997). Outliving oneself: trauma, memory, and personal identity. In D. T. Meyers (Ed.), Feminists rethink the self. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.


Rosemary LDA age 55 - 29yrs since disclosure

“growing up I always felt there was something [missing] but a story was always fabricated to answer my questions”

Heather LDDO age 42 – 24 yrs since disclosure

“everything I’d lived and thought I full understood through one identity, I began to second guess with half of my identity missing”.

“It actually answered many questions that I had simply shrugged off in the past”

Cameron LDA age 45 – 14yrs since disclosure

“so much of my life now makes sense. During childhood…I ‘knew’ something was very wrong with the picture I was living in – something was definitely not right…[I] internalised the wrong and made it about me”



Affirmation of equal status

and equal rights


Sally LDA age 47 – 8 yrs since disclosure

“She [government worker] was not empathic, supportive or understanding: she just pushed my original birth certificate…across the counter and said…this is you…[I also] found it impossible to get any information in Australia about late discovery adoption.

Ursula LDDO age 53 – 12 years since disclosure

“…lack of respect for my missing genetic origins shown by society, the medical profession…the government and those who had personally sanctioned and enabled my artificial conception”


Preliminary findings

Late discoverers of both adoptive and donor offspring status are having difficulty regaining self-respect, trusting again, feeling hope, feeling safe or forgiving…

“to fail to confirm the [victim’s] sense of wrong is itself another wrong” (Walker, 2006 p.20).

Moral repair demands recognition and acknowledgment

  • that the intentional concealment of genetic origins is a legitimate matter for concern
    • being willing to listen is validating
    • the ability to tell or to have wrong acknowledged by others is vindicating
  • that an injustice occurred when information about their genetic origins was intentionally concealed from them

Late discovery experiences will continue...

    • Up to 2/3rds of all donor offspring are not being told of their origins
Identity Crisis

My other self is musing

on the person I should be

if only there had been a chance

To find a proper me.

But who am I? Where am I from?

My life is all at sea,

From being trapped inside a lie,

A false identity.

Christine Whipp, LDDO

[with permission]