The Irresponsible Parent

(This is a continuation of the discussion begun in my last post.  You might want to go and read that first.)

In my last post I argued that it’s misleading to criticize some people’s choices to become parents as selfish, because all people’s choices to become parents are equally selfish.    However, I didn’t mean to suggest that no criticism of individual decision-making was possible.  I suggested that the better question was whether the decision to become a parent was responsible.    

Before I go further down that road, a bit of discussion is necessary.    There’s at least an argument that the decision to become a parent is personal and hence, shielded from public examination of the sort I am suggesting.  

To the extent this is true, it seems to me it ought to be equally true for all people.  Thus, it is as true for a single woman as it is for a married couple.   Either the decision to become a parent is private/personal or it isn’t (or it stands somewhere in the middle).  I don’t really see any reason to say that for a married couple the decision is private and personal but for a single woman it is somehow open to public scrutiny. 

Despite my conviction that the privacy argument, whatever it is, should be the same for all people considering parenthood, I’m afraid that in practice we do tend to create a stronger zone of privacy around the married couple.     

While the privacy argument seems strong, there are at least a couple of reasons to suggest that it can be appropriate for the public to judge the wisdom of individual decisions to become parents.   You could say we somehow represent the interests of the children as yet unborn/unconceived.  That sort of stance has been invoked here on this blog where people talked in comments about the problem of creating children who will not have access to their genetic forebears.     

You could also say that we have a general societal interest in the well-being of children who might be conceived/born because we are the fall-back in caring for those children and because those children constitute our next generation, who we will share the earth with and (eventually in all likelihood) cede authority to. 

If the decision to become a parent is one that is personal and private, then I should just stop here.   Since I’m planning to go on, however, I’ll just assume I have some right to comment on another person’s decision to become a parent.  

Now, to get back to my main point, the question I think it might be reasonable to ask is whether a person’s decision to become a parent is responsible.   I don’t imagine this reformulation of the question (from one about selfishness) is going to make the topic less contentious.   I do hope it might make it easier to focus the conversation and see what we agree and disagree about. 

So when is it responsible to decide to become a parent?   Or on the flip-side, when it is irresponsible?  For starters, I’d suggest that it is responsible to become a parent when there is a reasonable likelihood that the child will thrive.   And similarly, it is not responsible to become a parent when it is likely the child will not thrive.  (There are many ways to argue with either or both of these formulations, of course.)

To me, what this means is that it can be perfectly responsible for a person to become a single parent, so long as they are able to create conditions under which a child might thrive.  That means giving some thought to the difficulties of being a single parent and having some strategies for working around them.   Similarly, it can be responsible for a same-sex couple to become parents, though there are issues the couple should consider before doing so. 

Heterosexual married couples don’t get any special presumption of responsibility in my view.   It may be responsible for them to become parents, but it may not be.   If, for example, their relationship is violent and abusive, it’s probably not responsible for them to become parents.    

Finally, to touch on an issue that’s been discussed here a lot recently, using donor sperm can be an avenue towards responsible parenthood.   It requires some consideration of the consequences of that choice.  It might even require taking some steps to ensure that the planned child has access to information about the donor/provider of gametes.   But since I’m well convinced that it is possible for donor-conceived children to thrive, it seems to me the decision to embark on that course is potentially a responsible one.

20 responses to “The Irresponsible Parent

  1. Donor-conceived children thrive, you wrote, giving visions of well-fed well-schooled playing children. But it’s when they start thinking/feeling less spontaneously than the well-fed well-schooled child enjoying thier Nintendos or whatevers, and think/feel more deeply as the children mature that the donor-conceived analyse thier familes at this point we see the proof that ivf is not responsible.

    • I’m quite sure that some donor-conceived children thrive by most measures we might choose to use. I did not mean to conjure up children enjoying material possessions–that’s not what thriving is about to me. (Though I admit I haven’t discussed what thriving is–that might be a good thing for me to do.) I suppose I mean that some donor-conceived children grow up to be happy well-balanced productive people who live rich and meaningful lives.

  2. Julie, I disagree that it could ever be responsible for people from the outset to seek to strip the child they intend to bring into the world of his/her connection to his/her genetic parents. When because of circumstances a child loses a parent, people generally recognize that as a tragedy. It is no less tragic to be denied connection to a genetic parent from the outset and I would go so far as to say that never having known one’s parent is more tragic than losing a parent at a young age. I can speak with authority on this because I lost my mother as a young child. At least a child who loses a parent through death knows the parent’s identity and knows the reason why the parent is no longer around. But a child whose parent sold him/her as a gamete or embryo, faces the perpetual agony of knowing the parent deliberately chose to procreate children via strangers with whom s/he would cut off all contact and deny any responsibility for rearing or taking care of. It is very tough being a donor conceived person, and the fact that a donor conceived person knows that s/he was brought into existence just to satisfy a wo/man’s interest in having a biologically related child without that wo/man caring about the child’s need for connection with his/her sperm/egg donor parent is doubly hard and demonstrates the irrationality of allowing donor conception at all. Donor conception (certainly anonymous) is not moral, logical and most of all not responsible. It is also not responsible for a further reason. There is significant hereditary disease amongst donor conceived people. How can it therefore be responsible for any intending woman to abdicate the selection and screening of the person they want to conceive with to complete strangers such as sperm bank employees. Such abdication of personal responsibility to ensure your child is fathered by an attractive, healthy, personable man should not be left to stranger third parties.

    • I know that we disagree about the core question. I think someone choosing to use gametes from a third party ought to think carefully about that decision. She/he/they ought to think about what it might mean to the child and how she/he/they as parents will help the child to confront the issues that might be raised. It might lead the prospective parent(s) to choose to use a donor whose identity can be known to the child. It might lead the prospective parent to have the donor play some role in the child’s life. This is what I mean by being responsible about deciding to parent.

      In the end, the place where you and I must disagree, I think, is with the assertion that it will always be wrong/harmful to choose to use third-party gametes. I don’t think that is true, nor do I think that the third-party provider is necessarily a parent of the child.

      For the rest of the world, we’ve been over that ground a good deal and you can look back in some of the older comments to read the discussion.

  3. Thank you to Angela and Sandy – they both hit the nail on the head in this discussion!

    As a donor-conceived adult, I think that the mentality that using a sperm/egg donor is a responsible parental decision is unsound in both theory and practice.

    While I agree that ALL parents are selfish (re your last post), I think that individuals choosing to use a donor reach a new level of selfishness in regards to having children. For those that can conceive naturally they do what comes naturally – they are not the focus of this discussion (regardless of what their motives of for having children).

    For those that must for one reason or another choose to use a donor to conceive are making this decision to bring a child into this world that will forever be denied knowing his or her biological kin. Only for the sake of “wanting a baby”. And not just ANY baby, their baby, a baby biologically related to them! There are thousands of children in the US alone needing adoption or in foster care, yet they sit on the self so to speak. These children are not good enough. No, these DC parents must do the unthinkable and consciously and deliberately create a genetic orphan.

    Just as premeditated murder is considered a more heinous crime than say vehicular homicide, deliberately denying a child the right to ever know one or both of his or her biological parents even before that child was even conceived is an an crueler circumstance than a child that needs adopted because his or her biological parents are unable to care for them.

    Sandy’s comment about a parent dying when a child is young or unborn is similar but so different. First off, that child has an entire extended family to love them and provide for them and give them a sense of self. Secondly, the death a parent pre-birth is considered a tragedy, whereas the severing of genetic ties pre-conception is considered heroism (on the part of the parents).

    The emotional well-being of donor-conceived adults has been little studied, yet is something of the utmost importance. You say that:

    “But since I’m well convinced that it is possible for donor-conceived children to thrive, it seems to me the decision to embark on that course is potentially a responsible one.”

    This is a harmful and insulting piece of opinion that negates much of what has already been shown in the small bits of literature of donor-conceived adults. In the context that we are fed and sheltered and provided for physically, I think that the majority of donor-conceived adult would have to concede. However, thrive is more than simply attaining the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Many donor-conceived adults felt unloved by their non-biological parent. Divorce rates among heterosexual married couples is through the roof (based on the correspondence of hundreds of DC adults) compared to the normal population. This is likely due to the pressures and frustrations for the non-biological parent raising someone else’s child. In many cases it is the DI mom that WANTS the baby, and the dad simply goes along with it to keep her happy.

    While there are many donor-conceived children that were brought up in happy and functional families, the need for us to know our biological origins is paramount. For many adults, even the love for their non-biological parent cannot trump the need to know their biological father. And many wait until after their parents are deceased to search because they care so much for their dad that they do not want to hurt his feelings.

    Almost everything a donor-conceived adult does is in relation to keeping our parents happy. We were brought into the world as the “miracle baby” and the baby that was soooo wanted, that we must be grateful to not only be alive, but to be denied the right to have a connection with our biological father, even though our mothers sought donor conception so she could be biologically related to her child!!

    The hypocrisy in donor conception is outrageous, and the infertility industry and the DI parents will continually propagate their views in order to squelch ours because their wants and needs, and the pain of infertility (medical or social) must be seen as more important than the pain of not knowing a parent in order for society to continue to see donor conception in a favorable light.

    These behaviors are far from responsible, and seem to me often lean towards irrational and delusional behaviors and reactions. They are NOT in the best-interests of the child, yet that was never something you brought up in your propaganda about responsible parenting through donor conception.

    • I do not mean to be unsympathetic to your view, but I do disagree. I know of instances where I believe the decision to use donor/provided gametes from another person was responsibly made. I know of donor-conceived children who are as happy and well-balanced as any other people I know.

      It is clear to me that there are issues that parents of donor-conceived children must deal with just as there are issues that parents of mulit-racial children or adopted children must deal with. I guess I reject the idea that any of these issues are impossible to deal with in a satisfactory way.

      I am inclined to agree with you that the desire to have a genetically related child has been magnified in our society. I think that is probably not a good thing. Ironically, I think part of what has magnified it is exactly the insistence that only a genetically related person can be a real parent, the insistence that genetics is so very very important. That assertion causes more people to use ART–which is frequently employed in order to produce a child with at least some genetic relationship to one of its parents–and causes people to condemn the use of ART–because it often uses donor gametes.

  4. Julie, you say: To me, what this means is that it can be perfectly responsible for a person to become a single parent, so long as they are able to create conditions under which a child might thrive A single parent can’t possibly know what her situation is 18 years out in the future. The only thing that can be predicted with statistical certainty is that there is a 5% chance that she is dead.

    When discussing law, the important question is not what parents dream that they may be able to do for their child in the future, but what legal rights the child has, when it is born.

    Let me give an example. It is now standard medical procedure to advice teenage boys and men who go into cancer therapy, to store sperm samples in a sperm bank, so that they can become fathers in the future. When these samples are being used by their future partner, the situation is technically speaking, exactly the same as when a single women buy a sperm sample. But there is a world of difference in regard to the legal rights of the child. The donor child looses all its legal rights in respect of its father. This includes lifelong rights like inheritance, which can’t possibly be an embarrassment to the donor.

    With commodified reproduction, people are no longer born equal. Not because of unpredictable circumstances, but by design. Like in the age of slavery.

    • I do think a single parent ought to consider the possibility that she or he will die or become incapacitated. To be responsible, he or she needs to have some plan for that possibility. It’s not a high likelihood and I’m not saying you need to have it all spelled out. But raising a child on your own is a serious undertaking and you need to have a support network in hand.

      I think all prospective parents ought to approach the decision with similar seriousness. There’s a prospect you might end up single parenting even if you start out as a couple.

      I don’t think that in the ordinary instances these risks are high enough to make the decision to parent irresponsible. I’m trying to think about how high the risk would have to be to make it seem per se irresponsible to me. I suppose if a person knew with certainty that he or she was going to die within a year, it would be irresponsible to plan to become a parent in that time. But as you lowered the risk and lengthen the time it would get harder and harder for me to make this judgment.

      I’m not sure I understand your saved sperm example. If a young man wants to save his sperm with the possiblity that he’ll use it later and then he’s the one who uses it later that, then it doesn’t seem terribly important to me that he froze it. He could use it to become a single parent, or he could use it to become a co-parent with someone else, but in neither case does he seem to me to be too much like a single woman using donor sperm.

      Finally, ART is not (to me) like slavery. I assume what you mean is that the people who sell gametes are, in your view, selling their children. But since I don’t think it is the gametes that make a person a parent, selling gametes is not like selling your child. Selling gametes is more like selling your hair.

      I know that analogy is not perfect–if you bought a wig made with human hair, you’d probably have no interest in meeting the hair provider. I understand that at least some donor children very much want to know about or meet their donors. But you could respect that need and still not consider the practice akin to slavery.

      • You’ve come a LONG way since you held this view Julie or since you tried to defend your position by saying that the donor is not giving up their children. You’ve so much as said recently that yes, ok the donor does have to agree to reproduce agree not to take responsibility for his offspring as a parent once they are born, you acknowledge now that the whole point of gamete donation is not to get the donors gamete but to get his offspring. You have some new ways of defending the same point that are a bit more grounded in reality of the actual agreements that donors sign.
        I’s just interesting to go back and read and see if we approach the same topic in the same way 4 years later..

  5. I think I understand what Nelly meant when she said:
    “With commodified reproduction, people are no longer born equal. Not because of unpredictable circumstances, but by design. Like in the age of slavery.”
    To me the inference was not that the donor conceived have been sold and purchased either as gametes or embryos or been the subject of a paid surrogacy, a breach of human dignity in itself. But rather that the state through its legislation and jurisdiction has denied them rights granted to all other children and treats them as a different category of human. All other children are regarded by law as having a need and right to know both their genetic parents (paternity legislation give them this right) and the right to be financially supported and medically provided for by both their genetic parents, and the right to inherit from both their genetic parents, and if one of their genetic parents die, the right to demand of other tax payers to pick up the tab for their upkeep via social security.

    In contrast a donor conceived person is stripped of that right and told that because of the manner of their conception they are unworthy and unfit of being allowed connectedness to at least one genetic parent, and to protect the man (or woman) who sold them away from embarrassment, the very identity of the donor conceived’s origins has to be made a secret to the donor conceived so that they can forever be denied and shut away from their greater family and knowledge of antecedents.

    In a hundred years I believe people will look back at the gamete sale and practice that we have today and say – what horrific unjust barbarians they were – in the same way we now view slavery.

  6. Julie, what I meant by my example of men storing their sperm before cancer therapy, was that it is not the mode of reproduction which decides the legal rights of the child. It is arbitrarily decided by the “owners” of the child. This is akin to slavery, where people don’t enjoy universal legal rights protected by the State.

  7. Julie, I’m surprised that you say that our society has created an increased to have a genetically related child. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at other parts of the world where the concept of genetic kin, clanship, and extended families is so much stronger than ours!

    Only in the past couple of generations, when the blank slate theory became popular, did the importance of genetic relationships decrease. What your observing know is not a heightened increase in the importance, but a baby-step away from the complete disregarding of genetic relationships. And it’s the offspring andadoptees who are leading the way, facing incredible resistance for something that used to be so basic.

    • I suppose historical truth is always complicated, full of instances that cut in various directions. I was thinking of a range of things other than those you mention. The idea (firmly held in many western traditions for a long time) that a child of unmarried individuals had no parents or, more recently, had no father. It wasn’t that people didn’t understand reproduction–they just didn’t think that the biological connections necessarily created parents. Or the willingness of Roman men to adopt suitable young men as their heirs without any particular regard for the presence of a genetic connection. Or the insistence, in Imperial China (for at least some of the time) that the child a concubine gave birth to was the child of the Empress.

      The other thing I was thinking of is the increasing commonality of all the ART technologies, which are frequently driven by the urge to have a genetically related off-spring. Of course, there was no similar option fifty years ago for many people. But I think that meant that not having a genetically related child was more common than it is now. People who might have once adopted now go to great lengths (financial, physical and emotional) to have at least some genetic connection to a child. I understand that you can say this just reflects the natural innate desire to have a biological child, but I think there are other ways to read this. There’s a substantial industry out there (I mean ART) that is obviously interested in reinforcing our ideas about our natural and innate desires.

  8. Marilynn Huff

    I reunite children with their anonymous fathers and mothers and I reunite fathers and mothers with their anonymous children. I do this for free in my spare time. It not natural for a person not to be able to distinguish the faces of immediate family from those of unrelated persons. Failure to keep track of the children born to anonymous parents is a serious public health issue.

    One California sperm bank boasts 75000 births since 1978; thats 75000 people in one geographic region who have no idea who their fathers are or that they may have as many as 25 siblings, in their age group, in that region.

    All birth certificates should state the means by which the assignment of parenthood was made; by maternity or paternity test, by adoption, by marriage to a person who conceived outside of wedlock while married , or by virtue of having been relinquished by an anonymous mother father or both to the party that commissioned the childs production for purposes of personal parenting.
    Sowing the seeds of another living thing in order to reep its harvest is called farming.

    • You may have just come across my blog. I’d encourage you to read around some of the discussions that have occurred here. While I am coming around to the notion that children should have access to donor information if they want it, I don’t agree that a sperm donor is a father. He may indeed be an interesting person for the child. His genetic heritage may be medically relevant. But I don’t consider him to be “immediate family” in any of the terms we generally use that term. Indeed, the idea that he’d fall into the category of people who would get to make medical decisions for a child frightens me. (I’m thinking on a circumstance where he has no social relationship whatsoever with the child.)

      I’m not quite sure what all that information ought to appear on birth certificates–does the school district or the soccer team really need to know? I assume your real concern is that the child should have access to that information if/when the child wants it?

    • Let me begin by stating I am not educated or well versed on this topic. My question is this: do these children know of their potential to meet a sibling? If not, then how would they be protected of the risk of meeting then possibly falling in love with a half brother/sister.

      Secondly, is there not a cap on how many gametes a donor can donate, I mean 25 is a gross number to be in the company of siblings no matter how you look at it.

      • The concern about unintentional incest (which is what it is sometimes called) is one that’s been raised and discussed occasionally. Obviously the more offspring a particular person has, the greater the concern. This leads many people/governments/sperm banks to impose or suggest some sorts of limits–often ten offspring, sometimes more like 25. In the US there is no externally imposed limit and there’s no tracking/enforcement so you do get men who have dozens and dozens of offspring. (There are some posts about instances like that if you look around.) So I guess overall I would say that you have identified a problem that is real and that has no well-defined solution at the moment.

        If children know they are donor conceived then they might be able to guard against this. If two donor-conceived people got together, maybe they’d want to check if they were related. (I’m actually not aware of any instance where two people from the same donor did get together, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.)

  9. hey marilyn-
    is this a private geneology business of yours or part of an organization? Do you have a website?

  10. Kisarita no I don’t have a website. I reunited my mother with her family 11 years ago, then over the next 5 years about 10 of my personal friends with their various moms and dads. Then those friends started bringing their friends to me and I reunited them too. In between times I just like to pick interesting names off the reunion boards, find who they are looking for hook it all up place a three way call and say “Its my pleasure to tell you that your mother has been looking for you as long as you have she’s on the other line, I’ll connect you” then they are like why did I help and I say I don’t know. I’ve become super good friends with lots of those people. A girl at my work was on Oprah for finding her brother on the donor sibling registry, and I spent two years looking for her dad donor 46. Today! Today is the day they are to finaly meet. So now I reunite kids who were created by one or more anonymous donors. I pay for it all myself and give away all my detective passwords for free. Its just a hobbie I do like 8 hours a day when I’m not working for a pay check at an architecture firm. I’ll help anyone who asks as much as i can till i find who they want to find. I don’t find people for boring reasons like child support or cheating. That would be no fun so don’t ask about that.

  11. I’ve probably reunited getting close to 100 families and I’m still in contact with most of those people. Maybe half of them I just surprised. They never met me before.

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