A study reports off-spring of sperm donors-more likely to have issues with the law than those raised by biological parents.
- 2010/06/17 21:17:46
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The Sperm-Donor Kids Are Not Really All Right
A new study shows they suffer.By Karen Clark and Elizabeth Marquardt
Posted Monday, June 14, 2010, at 11:23 AM ET
The Kids Are All Right, due out in
July, is being praised for its honest portrayal of a lesbian couple,
played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. But what seems most
revelatory about the movie is its portrayal of their two teenage
children who track down their sperm donor biological father and insist
on forging a connection with him. Finally, we have an exploration of
how children born from such procedures feel, because in fact it turns
out that their feelings about their origins are a lot more complicated
than people think.
Each year an estimated 30,000-60,000
children are born in this country via artificial insemination, but the
number is only an educated guess. Neither the fertility industry nor
any other entity is required to report on these statistics. The
practice is not regulated, and the children's health and well-being are
not tracked. In adoption, prospective parents go through a painstaking,
systematic review, including home visits and detailed questions about
their relationship, finances, and even their sex life. Any red flags,
and a couple might not get the child.
With donor conception, the
state requires absolutely none of that. Individual clinics and doctors
can decide what kinds of questions they want to ask clients who show up
at their door. They don't conduct home studies. No contacts are
interviewed. If clients can pay their medical bills, most clinics could
care less about their finances. The effects of such a system on the
people conceived this way have been largely unknown.
We set out
to change that. We teamed up with professor Norval Glenn of the
University of Texas at Austin to design and field a survey with a
sample drawn from more than 1 million American households. One of us
(Karen Clark) found out at age 18 that she had been conceived through
anonymous sperm donation in 1966. The other (Elizabeth Marquardt) has
completed studies on topics such as the inner lives of children of
divorce and has been profoundly absorbed by the stories of adult donor
offspring since she first began hearing them in comments to posts she
wrote on the FamilyScholars blog in 2005.
Our study, released by the Commission on Parenthood's Future
last week, focused on how young-adult donor offspring—and comparison
samples of young adults who were raised by adoptive or biological
parents—make sense of their identities and family experiences, how they
approach reproductive technologies more generally, and how they are
faring on key outcomes. The study of 18- to 45-year-olds includes 485
who were conceived via sperm donation, 562 adopted as infants, and 563
raised by their biological parents.
The results are surprising.
While adoption is often the center of controversy, it turns out that
sperm donation raises a host of different but equally complex—and
sometimes troubling—issues. Two-thirds of adult donor offspring agree
with the statement "My sperm donor is half of who I am." Nearly half
are disturbed that money was involved in their conception. More than
half say that when they see someone who resembles them, they wonder if
they are related. About two-thirds affirm the right of donor offspring
to know the truth about their origins.
socioeconomic status, donor offspring are twice as likely as those
raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age
25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with
substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report
depression or other mental health problems.
As a group, the
donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were
adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated
from their families. (And our study found that the adoptees on average
are struggling more than those raised by their biological parents.) The
donor offspring are more likely than the adopted to have struggled with
addiction and delinquency and, similar to the adopted, a significant
number have confronted depression or other mental illness. Nearly half
of donor offspring, and more than half of adoptees, agree, "It is
better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child."
stories that donor offspring tell about their confusion help to
illustrate why they might be, as a group, faring so much worse.
Christine Whipp, a British author conceived by anonymous sperm donation
more than four decades ago, gives voice to the feelings some donor
offspring have of being a "freak of nature" or a "lab experiment":
existence owed almost nothing to the serendipitous nature of normal
human reproduction, where babies are the natural progression of
mutually fulfilling adult relationships, but rather represented a
verbal contract, a financial transaction and a cold, clinical
harnessing of medical technology.
Lynne Spencer, a
nurse and donor-conceived adult, speaks eloquently of losing trust when
her parents did not tell her the truth about her origins, and she
suspected the secret:
When you grow up and your
instincts are telling you one thing and your parents—the people you are
supposed to be able to trust the most in your life—are telling you
something else, your whole sense of what is true and not true is all
Others speak of the searching for their
biological father in crowds, wondering if a man who resembles them
could be "the one." One donor-conceived adult responded to an
open-ended question on our survey by writing: "Sometimes I wonder if my
father is standing right in front of me." Still others speak of
complicated emotional journeys and lost or damaged relationships with
their families when they grow up. One wrote at the end of our survey:
"I still have issues with this problem and am seeking professional
help. It has helped me to become a stronger person but has scarred me
emotionally." Another said, "[I am] currently not on seeing or speaking
terms with family because of this."
Listening to the stories of
donor-conceived adults, you begin to realize there's really no such
thing as a "donor." Every child has a biological father. To claim
otherwise is simply to compound the pain, first as these young people
struggle with the original, deliberate loss of their biological father,
and second as they do so within a culture that insists some guy who
went into a room with a dirty magazine isn't a father. At most the
children are told he's a "seed provider" or "the nice guy who gave me
what I needed to have you" or the "Y Guy" or any number of other cute
euphemisms that signal powerfully to children that this man should be
of little, if any, importance to them.
What to do? For
starters, the United States should follow the lead of Britain, Norway,
Sweden, and other nations and end the anonymous trade of sperm. Doing
so would powerfully affirm that as a nation we no longer tolerate the
creation of two classes of children, one actively denied by the state
knowledge of their biological fathers, and the rest who the state
believes should have the care and protection of legal fathers, such
that the state will even track these men down and dock child support
payments from their paychecks.
Getting rid of the secrecy would
go a long way toward helping relieve the pain offspring feel. But
respondents to our study told us something else too: About half of them
have concerns about or serious objections to donor conception itself,
even if parents tell their children the truth. Our findings suggest
that openness alone does not resolve the complex risks to which
children are exposed when they are deliberately conceived not to know
and be known by their biological fathers.
At the very least,
these young people need acknowledgement of reality as they experience
it. Donor offspring may have legal and social parents who take a
variety of forms—single, coupled, gay, straight. But they also have,
like everyone else, a biological father and mother, two people whose
very beings are found in the child's own body and seen in his or her
own image reflected in the mirror.
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