A review of Kin: Family in the 21st century by Marina Kamenev

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Kin: Family in the 21st Century 
by Marina Kamenev 
Paperback, March 2024, Paperback, 448 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1742237428

The classic definition of family is pretty broad: a group of related and connected people. This can be by birth or affinity; biological or social and might not necessarily involve the growing-up process. According to Wikipedia, the purpose of the family is to maintain the well-being of its members and of society – the basis of attachment, socialisation and nurturing. Kin is a deeply researched book that explores the multiple ways families are made today, whether that be families without children – couples and extended groups of adults, families created by sperm donation, IVF, surrogacy, adoption, co and multi-parenting groups, and more. Kamanev does a wonderful job exploring the range of iterations, combining detailed historical context, stories, interviews, research, personal anecdotes, and the pervasive assumptions that often underlie what we constitute as kin – both in a legal and a cultural sense. 

Kamenev has done her research well and is thorough, sensitive, and non-judgemental. Many of the issues that Kamenev raises in Kin are complex ones with outcomes that can be viewed in many ways. One example of that is the story of Fiona Darroch, who found out that she was one of hundreds of children conceived by sperm donations from South-African Ob-Gyn Tony Walker, her parents’ fertility doctor: 

The flurry of activity was exhilarating for Fiona at first. ‘I had all these great siblings,’ she said. All of them, including Crosby, visited her in Australia within months. Then, as more people matched with her on the websites, the emotional intensity of the correspondence weighted her down. She was years ahead of the others in terms of making peace with the past. (107)

Walker was Fiona’s trusted godfather who took his own life when Fiona was a teenager and finding the truth as an adult was devastating to her and many of the other children conceived by Walker’s sperm that she met with. The question of trust and ethics, particularly from the point of view of the children who were raised without knowledge that they were donor conceived is something that Kamenev explores in depth.

Walker isn’t the only sperm donor in the book who knowingly and sometimes unknowingly (through dodgy clinics) fathers extensive numbers of children. There are the serial (“super”) donors like Adam Hooper, who runs his own sperm donation site on social media – “Sperm Donation World”. Hooper is at least very open about his donations and willing to engage with families and children, but many sperm and egg donors believed that they would remain anonymous and signed documents to that effect when they donated, however people want and need to know their genetic background and this is at odds with anonymity. Changing regulations sometimes create a mismatch in expectations which can cause a range of issues, including pain for children when they find out their parents aren’t the source of their DNA (something that can be a real issue medically if can’t trace your family history).   

Kin covers the latest reproduction technologies both from a scientific perspective but also focuses on the critical cultural and emotive aspects of families, including childless families, and in particular, the way that childless women are somehow made to feel as though this is something that has to be justified:

Trainor Parker’s reflections reinforce the idea that there’s something about having a female body that makes you an object of public interest. If it’s not strangers touching your pregnant belly, it’s the opinions of acquaintances about the vacancy in your womb. (45) 

There are many stories in Kin, told from a wide range of perspectives, medical, donor, surrogate, successful and non-successful IVF, parent, partner or researcher, rainbow and ‘guild’ families, single families, extended families, families that have broken and families that have rebuilt. They make for very thought-provoking reading, raising all sorts of questions about the nature of families and the ways in which this notion has changed over the years, growing to incorporate friends and support people including donors and surrogates who want to remain connected and in relationships, and shrinking to cut off extended family members like older relatives who might have been part of the family unit in the past.

The book finishes with an exploration of what might be coming including ectogenesis (gestation in an artificial womb), and the creation of so-called “designer” babies. New technologies are being explored not just to filter and edit out inherited diseases but also to select for height, eye colour, beauty, intelligence – the ethical minefield that is eugenics. The CRISPR scientist He Jiankui who was imprisoned for illegal medical practice in using the novel technology to edit the gene sequences of twins was released from prison last year and is now talking about starting up his research again, focusing on gene therapy, so this is very much a live and topical subject with no easy answers. As with the rest of the book, Kamenev provides the perfect blend of historical context, debate, philosophical conundrums, newspaper articles, expert opinion and personal anecdotes to tease out many aspects of the issue:

As for worries about creating a superhuman race, or a future where we can customise our children for personality, hair colour or intelligence, they go back to a time when fertility treatment was semen in a syringe, well before assisted reproduction was even possible.  (346)

Kin is one of those books that will appeal to a wide range of people for different reasons. As an informative compendium for anyone considering creating a family either traditionally or by any other means, Kin is a must-read that will provide a significant amount of up-to-the-minute information on the many aspects of assisted reproductive technologies, surrogacy and donation, including stories of success, failure, and all the grey areas in between. The book also provides an exploration that reaches beyond the family unit into questions of what it means to be human and not only provides a terrific compendium of research and stories, but raises fascinating and important questions that should be of interest to anyone.