Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Politics of Birth Certificates

Should birth certificates include details of genetic and gestational parentage? I argue yes. 

In the blog below, written after a fascinating and, at times, difficult and moving panel discussion I attended last night about possible legal reforms to birth certificates in the UK, I argue that a child's "right to know their parents," enshrined in Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, trumps parental interests in preserving the privacy of their child's conception. As a result, I suggest that we should state mandate disclosure of genetic and gestational parentage to the child via compulsory biological information on their birth certificate. I recognise that such mandatory state disclosure might seem heavy-handed to some, and of course there are legitimate concerns about what the state could do with such information. But the alternative – denying all children the equal right to know who are their genetic and gestational parents – seems worse. Have a read of my blog, if you have a moment, and let me know your thoughts!


Last night, I attended a fascinating and, at times, difficult and moving panel discussion about possible legal reforms to birth certificates in the UK. Organised by the Progress Educational Trust at the Institute for Child Health in London, the event was prompted by the Law Commission's suggestion that it might consider birth registration and birth certificates as part of its next law reform project.  

The discussion first explored the broad question of the purpose of birth certificates. It then homed in on more specific questions about the impact of assisted conception and changing family forms on birth registration. Dr Julie McCandless, a legal scholar at LSE, began by highlighting “the multiple, and sometimes competing and contradictory understandings that people have of the purpose of birth registration.” She asked: "Does it record a person? An event? Legal relationships? Is it meant as a permanent record or merely as a snapshot of a particular moment in time?" Sarah Norcross, Director of the PET, asked whether birth certificates are for the state’s benefit – to enable it to monitor fertility rates, predict population growth, and plan pension provisions – while panel chair Professor Peter Braude asked whether they are instead for the individual’s benefit – to enable them to access public services, like healthcare and education, that are contingent on proving age and nationality.

These are all important questions. And certainly, as McCandless argues, “These questions need to be addressed if law reform in this area is to be principled and forward looking, rather than merely piecemeal and reactionary.”

But perhaps as important – and certainly more difficult, as evidenced by the tense exchanges that emerged during the Q&A last night – is the question of whether birth certificates should detail only a child’s legal parents or if they should also provide information on that child’s biological backstory. Specifically, should birth certificates detail a person’s ‘journey of conception and gestation’ by including information about their genetic parents (egg and/or sperm donors) and gestational parents (surrogates)? This is not easy to answer, and it raised strong emotions amongst panelists and audience members alike.

Some panelists argued that conception and gestation information is private, and that parents should not be forced to disclose personal details about their child’s conception to either the state (via a public registration document) or to their children – unless and until they are ready and willing to do so. As panelist Kate Litwinczuk, herself donor-conceived, put it, “Openness and honesty are crucial. But smashing this information onto a birth certificate might scare people. It could be used as a way to threaten people into telling their children. That should happen when within yourself, as a parent, you’ve made peace with it.” Craig Reisser, speaking in his capacity as a father of two donor-conceived children, concurred. “The details of conception are a private family matter,” he said, “not a matter for the public record or that a parent or child should have to show to a passport officer.” US attorney Steven Snyder took a similar stance. He agreed that “family secrets are destructive” and that “those who participate in third party reproduction should be open and honest.” But the question, for him, was whether such disclosures should be mandated by the state and/or via the birth certification process. In his view, such forced disclosure could give rise to litigation regarding issues like inheritance. Consequently, he concluded, “All parties should disclose, while ensuring that parties are insulated from unintended legal consequences. Encourage disclosure, don’t state mandate it.”

Others disagreed with this approach. Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, Chair of the British Association of Social Workers’ Project Group on Assisted Reproduction, countered, “Human rights of donor-conceived and surrogate born children should be paramount, trumping parents. Knowing your identity and parents should apply to genetic parents, gestational parents, legal parents and those raising you. As citizens, we have a right for the state to facilitate information about us.” Two donor-conceived audience members agreed. They spoke movingly about the detrimental effects on an individual’s sense of self and identity of having conception information withheld from them, and from donor-conceived children in general, until early or late adulthood. “It is not enough to leave it to the goodwill of parents because it doesn’t always happen. Donor conceived people want to know,” said one. “But what is the purpose of knowing?” countered a panelist. “So you can know your genetic code? So you can prevent or cure disease? So you can be part of your donor’s family?” “Because a donor-conceived person has a right to know, and doesn’t have to justify that with a reason,” the audience member answered emphatically.

There was an evident and uncomfortable power dynamic at play during this exchange: The intended parent, atop the podium, fully aware of all the information concerning his children’s conception, arguing for his right to control the flow of that information; the donor-conceived child-now-adult, sitting below in the audience, insisting on his right to know, whatever his legal parents’ preferences, but ultimately powerless to access such personal information.

Over the course of their discussion, I became increasingly convinced of the paramount importance of a child’s right to know, of the parents’ responsibility to disclose – of course, in age-appropriate language, and at a time when the child is able to comprehend and process the information – and, in the absence of that voluntary parental disclosure, of the state’s duty to provide the information. As numerous contributors pointed out, the child’s right to know is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Article 7, which states “All children have the right to a legally registered name, officially recognised by the government. Children have the right to a nationality (to belong to a country). Children also have the right to know and, as far as possible, to be cared for by their parents” (my emphasis). By contrast, during the evening, I was not pointed to an equally weighty, universally-applicable right to privacy of either the intended, genetic or gestational parents. Is there one? Consequently, framing the issue as one of merely “competing interests,” as Snyder did, ignores the primacy of the child’s right in Article 7. Meanwhile, framing it as a “balance of rights” issue (of parents, children, and other third parties involved), as Reisser did, does not seem backed-up by competing equivalent parental rights. For me, then, the child’s right to know trumps mere parental interests, whether those are the interests of the legal, intended, genetic and/or gestational parents.

Plus, as was pointed out, voluntary disclosure cannot guarantee openness and honesty. Some parents may never be ready to disclose. Some may fear alienating their children, of creating emotional distance between them and their children, or of enabling potentially rival parents to enter the picture. Others may be concerned about their children’s status in, or acceptance by, a particular community, perhaps especially a religious one with fixed ideas about kinship and family ties. Some parents may want to disclose but not have the words to express the complexity of their emotions around the issue. What if some parents are never ready? What if they die without disclosing, taking this family secret with them to the grave? Is that fair on the child?

My sense is that it is not fair on the child. And so, perhaps along with the other pains of assisted reproduction – invasive testing, financial costs, the emotional rollercoaster of pregnancy and pregnancy loss – will, sadly, have to come another pain for the intended parents: mandatory disclosure to the child via compulsory biological information on their birth certificate. Such mandatory state disclosure might seem heavy-handed to some, and of course there are legitimate concerns about what the state could do with such information. But the alternative – denying all children the equal right to know who are their genetic and gestational parents – seems worse.

The next questions are about application and enforcement: Should there be an additional long-form registration form with a mark on the first, shorter form to direct donor-conceived children towards their biological backstory? My sense is not. Such a mark could be stigmatizing, implying that this kind of information is shameful or abnormal and therefore ought to be hidden away from public view in a long-form version. Also, an individual would have to know what the mark signified, rendering the information inaccessible. Instead, I would suggest additional boxes be inserted on ALL birth certificates to include information about genetic and gestational parents, as well as other co-parents. With increasing rates of assisted conception and changing family forms, this would soon be normalized. Those engaging in transnational surrogacy or sourcing genetic material from abroad should be similarly compelled to detail their child’s genetic and gestational parentage on their birth certificate when returning and registering in the UK. Going abroad should not be seen or used as a way to avoid disclosure, thereby violating a child’s right to know.

The event’s hashtag was #petrecord 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Join us at Court!

It may be getting colder outside but things here at the Equal Civil Partnerships Campaign are hotting up. In less than a month, my partner Charles Keidan and I take our case to the Court of Appeal! 

We would be honoured if you could join us outside the Court of Appeal in London as the hearing begins on Wednesday 2nd November. Let’s celebrate our shared cause together and show judges and policymakers alike how much this means to us all. 

We’ll be gathering outside the court at 9.00am for breakfast and photos, complete with lots of giant cut-out hearts! You can sign up here or just turn up on the day. The press may ask to interview couples who want a civil partnership, so if that’s you and you’re happy to be interviewed, please drop us a line: hello@equalcivilpartnerships.org.uk 

Date: Wednesday 2nd November
Time: 9am
Place: Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, London

We want to make the day as colourful as we can so we’re going to be putting our art skills to the test by creating lots of large cut-out hearts for the occasion. Please join us for that if you can on Tuesday 18th October - otherwise make your own at home and bring them along. Sign up here

Positive Progress 

There’s been lots of positive progress over the last few months. The Isle of Man has introduced same-sex marriage and different-sex civil partnerships, showing how easy and possible it is to attain full relationship equality. Why can’t England and Wales be next? 

The number of MPs and other prominent people backing our cause has also continued to grow. MPs from all parties are calling for civil partnerships to be open to all. So too are public figures, like the writer Owen Jones, as well as organisations including Liberty and TUC Women. 

Every ounce of pressure counts. That’s why we would dearly like to see your show of support during our hearing. 

It’s only with all your support that we’ve come this far - and that we’ll be able to go further. 

Thank you all and warm wishes from all of us here at the campaign, 

Rebecca and Charles 

@beccasteinfeld & @charleskeidan

#equalcivilpartnerships #equallove 

PS - If you haven't already done so, please consider donating to the campaign via this link https://www.gofundme.com/ECPcampaigns

Monday, 22 August 2016

My talk on 'Genital Alteration: Towards More Empirical, Ethical and Effective Policies' at Keele University, 14 September

I am looking forward to sharing my research on policies towards female and male genital alteration at the 14th International Symposium on Genital Autonomy at Keele University on 14 September 2016.

As I explain in my abstract, global and Western states’ policies toward genital alteration tend to focus on eliminating female genital mutilation, or FGM, while tolerating or even encouraging male circumcision. On the surface, this seems unproblematic: Within global health and human rights circles, FGM is almost universally regarded as bad and barbaric – as a savage and severely harmful manifestation of the patriarchal drive to control female sexuality – whereas male circumcision is seen as benign or even beneficial. Yet mounting empirical evidence and ethical critique calls into question these contrasting perceptions, and, in turn, the divergent policies they underpin. In this paper, I argue that maintaining policies premised on sex-based distinctions seems unsustainable, as well as incompatible with gender equality. Instead, I suggest that meaningful age-based distinctions between those unable (children) and able (adults) to give informed consent could constitute more empirical, ethical and effective policies. I evaluate the merits and demerits of both permissive and restrictive approaches to female and male genital alteration, and assess the advantages and disadvantages of some specific alternative policies.

My talk stems from a wonderful collaborative partnership with my brilliant bioethicist friend and colleague, Brian Earp. Together, we have spent the summer conducting research at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva on a project entitled "The Science, Politics, and Ethics of Male Circumcision: An Interdisciplinary Take on an Emerging Global Controversy."

For more information about my talk, see here

For more information about the symposium and its programme, see here.

For more information about Brian Earp's and my research together, see here

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Upcoming research with brilliant bioethicist Brian Earp at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva

I am extremely excited to soon be joining my brilliant bioethicist friend and colleague, Brian Earp, at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva for a month long residency of researching and writing about male circumcision. 

Our project, entitled "The Science, Politics, and Ethics of Male Circumcision: An Interdisciplinary Take on an Emerging Global Controversy," will involve our planning and organising an academic conference on male circumcision featuring the leading researchers on this subject from ethics, history, law, medicine, religious studies, and across the social and political sciences. We hope that the output of this conference will form the basis of an edited collection of essays on a range of circumcision-related topics and debates.

For more information on the research we have planned during our joint residency, please see my researcher profile here

Monday, 20 June 2016

Presentation on 'Gender in Israel' at Brandeis University's Summer Institute for Israel Studies

It was both a pleasure and a privilege to present my ideas for teaching about 'Gender in Israel' to the fellows of the 2016 Summer Institute for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

As I explained in my talk, research on gender in Israel emanates from multiple disciplines and addresses numerous contested questions. These include:
  • The extent to which kibbutzim have lived up to their egalitarian promise
  • The impact of the military on gender roles and relations 
  • The effect of religious beliefs and institutions on ideas about and practices relating to gender
  • How gender has intersected with socio-economic class, ethnicity, race and religion in Israel
  • The historical roots and contemporary sources of Israeli pro-natalism, or encouragement of childbirth
  • The factors offsetting Israel's pro-natalism
  • The implications of Israel's pro-natalism for women's reproductive health and rights
If you would like to read my syllabus, which includes an overview of the scholarship both on gender and on reproduction in Israel, together with my recommended readings, please click here

Thank you to the director of the Schusterman Centre for Israel Studies at Brandeis, David Ellenson, and to the associate director, Rachel Fish, for not only inviting me to present, but also giving me such a warm welcome. Thanks also to Anina Selve, Rise Singer and Abby Huber for all of their hard work in helping and supporting me in myriad ways.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

My Recent "Wars of the Wombs" Lecture at LSE's Middle East Centre

I was delighted to speak recently at LSE's Middle East Centre about my research on abortion in Israel. It was my first public lecture after a year of maternity leave, which as many of you will know is a daunting task. I needn't have fretted: My paper was very well received by an engaged and engaging audience, leading to a stimulating question and answer session afterwards. Many thanks to my former doctoral supervisor, Professor Avi Shlaim, for chairing the event.

The paper I presented - which is based on a journal article that I published in Israel Studies last year, and which you can read and/or download here - outlines the historical and contemporary struggles that have led to the gap between the restrictions on, and availability of, abortion in Israel. I attribute this gap to the compromise necessitated by conflicts among competing policymakers, motivated by opposing viewpoints and interests, over the objectives and substance of abortion policies.

If you'd like to hear more, you can listen to the podcast of my lecture here

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Just Published in Israel Studies: Wars of the Wombs: Struggles Over Abortion Policies in Israel

I have just published an article in the peer-reviewed academic journal Israel Studies in which I examine the historical and contemporary struggles that have led to the gap between the restrictions on, and availability of, abortion in Israel. 

My article, entitled "Wars of the Wombs: Struggles Over Abortion Policies in Israel," attributes this gap to the compromise necessitated by conflicts amongst competing policymakers, motivated by opposing viewpoints and interests, over the objectives and substance of abortion policies. 

Opposition to abortion stems primarily from demographic anxiety relating to both the Holocaust and the Muslim Arab-Jewish fertility differential in Israel/Palestine. Support for access to abortion emanates from countervailing concerns about the implications of unrestrained fertility for women’s health, family welfare, and social stability, as well as  “qualitative” interests in reproducing healthy children. Some feminists have also resisted attempts to render women’s wombs national vessels. 

This article explores the evolution of these struggles over four distinct historical periods, and assesses their impact on women’s reproductive experiences and rights.

To read the article in full, please go to Israel Studies Volume 20 Number 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 1-26.  

You can also download and read a full PDF of the article via my personal Academia.edu page here.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Skinny Magazine: Kate Pasola, "Marriage Rights: Trying to be Civil"

My partner Charles Keidan and I were recently interviewed for this personal, funny and supportive article on civil partnerships for The Skinny magazine.

In it, the writer, Kate Pasola, explains, "That was when I realised – no matter how fruitfully you transform the patriarchal institution of marriage into a feminestival of equality, there’s always explaining to be done. Explaining to the father-in-law why I didn’t change my surname to his. Explaining to my dad why I won’t let him 'give me away.' Explaining to the Elvis impersonator my rewriting of the line “you may now kiss your bride.” I want something else. I want a civil partnership.

Legalised in 2004 as a form of partnership open to same-sex couples, civil partnerships are a blank canvas stripped of expectation and patriarchal norms. Couples are considered partners, not husband and wife. Both parents of the parties are acknowledged on the certificate, rather than writing women out of history since the beginning of time. There’s no obligation to utter any sort of sacred words unless you choose to, it’s just a matter of signing on the dotted line. And about surnames? In marriage, if a husband wants to take his wife’s name, it’s more of a costly and lengthy process. With civil partnerships, you can just pick the best name (or play rock paper scissors), and be done with it – at no extra cost."

To read the full article, click here.

Friday, 17 April 2015

The importance of academic freedom and open debate

Today, The Jewish Chronicle published a letter in which a cross-section of Jewish academics, including myself, condemned the undermining of academic freedom at the University of Southampton.

This letter is too little, too late, at least from the point of view of this particular academic conference, which has now been indefinitely postponed. But let's hope that the support for unhindered academic freedom expressed by a spectrum of Jewish academics, as well as by many Jewish communal figures (albeit primarily in private so far), will make Jewish organisations think twice before bringing pressure to bear on universities to limit open debate in the future.

Below is a copy of the text and a full list of signatories, together with a photograph of the letter as it appeared in today’s print edition:

Dear Editor,

As Jewish academics in the UK, we condemn the pressure that has been brought to bear, in our names, on the University of Southampton, and which led to the withdrawing of permission to hold the conference "International Law and the State of Israel” on its premises. We are deeply concerned by reports that organisations, including the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council, pressured the University to limit open debate.

The unhindered airing and rigorous critiquing of ideas, especially controversial ones that may make some feel uncomfortable or offended, is at the core of the academy and the intellectual process. Academic freedom should not be restricted because some people disagree strongly with ideas being expressed or because such ideas are against their strongly held convictions. Rather, those people should challenge such ideas with counter-arguments based on sound analysis and evidence. Meanwhile, academics should decide what constitutes acceptable academic debate, unless the subject breaches UK law, which neither the conference's description nor outline appear to do.

Restricting the spaces and places available for debate is not only intellectually lazy and against the principles of academic freedom, but also sets dangerous precedents. In this instance, those precedents include legitimising the interference and intervention of outside interest groups on campus; limiting academic debate; silencing critical voices; and setting the stage for further moves to boycott academic events and individuals. None of this is acceptable, and we feel we have a duty to stand up against it now.

We also wish to express our disappointment in the University of Southampton for failing to uphold free academic debate in this case. We hope that the University realises that the reported actions of some Jewish organisations in relation to this conference do not speak for all Jews, and that many of us - including those who disagree vehemently with the viewpoints of some of the conference presenters - are nevertheless dismayed by what has happened.


Prof Geoffrey Alderman, University of Buckingham
Prof David Feldman, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Bernard Gowers, University of Oxford
Prof Paul Hyams, Universities of Cornell and Oxford (Emeritus)
Mr Charles Keidan, City University London
Dr Liora Lazarus, University of Oxford
Dr Amir Paz-Fuchs, University of Sussex
Prof Avi Shlaim, University of Oxford
Dr Rebecca Steinfeld, London School of Economics
Prof David Steinsaltz, University of Oxford
Mr Bernard Sufrin, University of Oxford
Dr Adam Sutcliffe, King’s College London
Dr Ruvi Ziegler, University of Reading

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

High Court judge grants permission to take my partner's and my equal civil partnerships case to trial

A High Court judge, Mrs Justice Elisabeth Laing DBE, has granted my partner, Charles Keidan, and me permission to proceed with our legal case against the government’s continued barring of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. The judge has also granted us a Protective Costs Order (PCO) to limit our liability for the government’s legal costs in the event that our case is unsuccessful. The judge’s granting of permission and PCO make clear that our case is of public importance and is in the public interest.

As our solicitor, Louise Whitfield, a partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn, put it: “This is an important case about discrimination and human rights affecting thousands of people; in granting permission the judge acknowledges the case is arguable and should be heard; PCOs are not awarded lightly, but only in cases of real public importance which it is in the public interest for the court to decide.”

Donations are now URGENTLY required to enable the case to proceed since we could still be liable for up to £70,000 of legal costs if we lose – an extremely onerous amount for us with a baby on the way! So we have launched an appeal for new contributions via crowd-funding website GoFundMe. Please consider donating now, as well as signing our petition.

For further information about today's news, please see the following article in Pink News.