One of the reasons I started the Ethics Scoreboard, and continued with Ethics Alarms, was my frustration with the ethics profession’s reluctance to render useful opinions on complex ethical problems…unless, of course, the ethicist was being paid for them. Instead, ethicists are prone to issue obtuse and jargon-filled discussions allowing for every possible eventuality and interpretation, usually concluding with vague, equivocal pablum that allows the ethicist to avoid criticism and accountability. The result of this craven preference for “maybe” as the answer to every dilemma is that ethics are rarely included in public discourse or media coverage, as it solidifies its reputation for being technical, ambiguous, and pointless.
A perfect example of the reticence to make a clear choice occurs in this week’s installment of “The Ethicist,” the New York Times Magazine’s ethics column. An understandably anonymous inquirer writes that he unknowingly fathered a child with a married woman in his neighborhood, who raised the child as the offspring of her and her husband. The mother asked the biological dad to have no contact with the girl, and he has complied. Now he asks, “Does she have a right to know her true parentage upon reaching adulthood? Sooner? Over the objection of the mother? Only when the husband dies? Who can make these decisions and when?”
Ariel Kaminer, “The Ethicist,” replies with a series of equivocations. After quoting Adam Pertman, an advocate for openness in adoption, that “the right to know who you are and where we come from is basic and core,” and that the daughter must be told the truth, she goes on to say that the consequences of informing the girl about her true parentage “could be devastating” to his daughter, and could cause the entire family to “come apart.” Then again, Kaminer says, “it could be a godsend.” Still, in most cases “only a parent responsible for rearing a child is qualified to make this decision” …BUT the daughter deserves to “have an accurate family medical history, past and continuing.”
“I wouldn’t be the first to say that a lie is a poor foundation on which to build a family (or anything else, for that matter),” Kaminer concludes. “But blurting out some truths may obscure others. If you pursue this, just make sure you are acting on the girl’s need to know, not your need to tell.”
But should he tell her, or not?
Here is what Kaminer should have said to the biological father: N-O. No. Absolutely not.
He was an accidental and involuntary sperm donor, and nothing more. Yes, his daughter had a right to the truth about her parentage, just as the man who raised her had a right to know how she was really conceived, but the mother chose to deceive them both, and a family and three lives have been built on that deception. The biological father has no reason, right or justification to roll the dice out of some manufactured sense of duty and risk destroying three lives, or the relationships among them—not after the surrogate father dies, not when the mother dies, never. Lives should never be built on lies, but once built, there must be a better reason to destroy a solid structure than “she has a right to know the truth.”
What is the truth now? The truth is that the secret daughter has a loving father and a loving mother who have raised her. The rest…confusing details and complications that are likely to accomplish nothing but harm if they are revealed. There are anomalous situations where revealing truth is worse than maintaining a lie. This is one of them. It is a classic utilitarian calculation. Which course of action, telling the truth or maintaining the lie, will do the most harm to the most people? There isn’t any question, is there?
Pertman, therefore, the author of “Open Adoption,” is 100% wrong.
There is an exception, and that is if there was an imminent, serious medical emergency in which the girl’s health would be in peril if the identify of her biological father were not revealed. Other than that, however, this unfortunate ethical problem has a simple answer, and equivocating increases the likelihood of the biological father making an unethical and harmful decision.
Ethicists love to answer difficult questions with “maybe.” Sometimes, that is the most irresponsible answer of all.
* About “The Farkel Family” : “The Farkel Family” was a recurring sketch on the classic Sixties TV comedy show, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Both of the Farkel parents, Frank Farkel and Fanny Farkel , had brown hair and good eyesight. Coincidentally, all their many children had flaming red hair, freckles and had to wear thick glasses, exactly like their “good friend and trusted neighbor” Ferd Berffle…who, as far as we know, never consulted “The Ethicist.”