What If…?

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the studies I discussed yesterday.   I’ve read them both and found I have more to say, a good deal of which would be critical response to the Family Scholars report.   But before I do that (if I do that–are you all getting bored by this?) I wanted to take a step back and ask a broader question:  What follows from reports like these?   What conclusion should we draw?  What should we do, or what should we do differently?

I want to set aside the longitudinal study of lesbian families for the moment (the one published in Pediatrics) and focus on the Family Scholars paper.   Suppose it is true, as the authors contend, that the donor conceived suffer substantial harm.    (To be quite clear, I don’t concede this point.  This is more in the nature of a thought experiment.)  Then what?  What would follow from that?   

It seems to me that in order to answer this, we need to understand why the donor conceived suffered harm.   I’m not sure the report really tells us what we need to know here. 

For example, it seems to me (and I’m only expressing an opinion here) that where parents of a donor conceived child conceal the circumstances of a child’s conception from the child and then the child somehow stumbles on the information, the child could easily feel betrayed.   To the extent this is a problem it is caused by the lack of candor on the part of the parents.   With that understanding, if you ask me what we should do to protect children from this harm, it seems to me we should strongly encourage parents to speak to their kids–early and often–about the circumstances of their conception.   

But if I accept the study results, I think there must be other causes of harm beside the lack of candor.    What are they?   And what can we do about them? 

Here I want to harken back to a post a couple of weeks ago.  It was spurred by an item in the Motherlode blog run on the NY Times website.  A family with an adopted daughter told of the distress occasioned by a fourth-grade genetics assignment.   This is the sort of thing that can make adopted children feel badly about themselves, though surely this was neither the purpose nor the intent of the assignment.    

This sort of harm ought to concern us.   While I’ve no doubt the parents in the episode recounted in Motherlode could reassure their daughter, I can see how similar experiences repeated over and over could inflict lasting harm.   I suspect the same sort of thing might be happening with respect to the donor conceived. 

It’s troubling that 8% of the donor conceived people interviewed in the study felt they were “freaks of nature,”  though I am reassured to see that three times as many felt “special” and over five times as many felt it was “not a big deal.”   What is it that makes them feel this way?   What can we do about it?

I don’t think this is something that just happens.  Feelings like these arise in response to social conditions.   To digress for a moment, I wore glasses as a relatively young child.   I felt a bit like a freak, and I know why:  Other people made me feel uncomfortable (or just plain weird) about wearing glasses.   (I’m glad to say that this is something I don’t think happens quite so commonly today, perhaps because many more people wear glasses.)       

It seems to me it is quite likely that if some donor-conceived kids feel like freaks of nature, it’s probably because other people have made them feel that way.  Perhaps their parents are uncomfortable discussing it with them, instilling a sense of shame.   Perhaps they’re told to keep it a secret, because their friends might expose them to harm.   Perhaps, like the adopted child in the Motherlode anecdote, they feel their status within their family is more tenuous or less real.  

If this is part of what is going on, then to me the answer isn’t to bar use of third-party gametes any more than I think the solution to the fourth-grade genetics exercise problem is to bar adoption.   Instead, I’d try to give parents the tools and the support they need to be honest with their kids and to help them over the rough spots.   I’d encourage teachers and others who occupy similar positions to be more sensitive to the inadvertant and unintended harm they may do.


24 responses to “What If…?

  1. Julie,
    As you know, but other readers here might not, I am a co-investigator on this report you cite. In response to this post, I would like to share a post I made to the Family Scholars blog (http://familyscholars.org/2010/06/04/challenging-donor-conception-and-creating-stigmas-one-step-forward-two-steps-backwards/) Please go to the FS blog for the link to Michael’s full post.

    Challenging donor conception and creating stigmas – one step forward, two steps backwards
    Karen Clark 06.04.2010, 4:04 PM

    I read a really wonderful and sad post by a former donor, named Michael, who referenced the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” study in his post “I am somebody’s daddy”.

    The main point of his article is that he fears that the issues raised in this report will create stigmas for alternative families.

    Michael writes:

    One donor conceived person told me that she thought it was important to create stigmas—that people shouldn’t think that just anyone should think it’s fine to use donor assisted reproduction. Her point was that her experience, as well as the data in the report, make it clear that the emotional problems that people who don’t know their genetic identity face prove to her that it should be avoided as much as possible. While I support vigorous debate, and completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m sure that I don’t support creating stigmas.

    I worry that the normalizing or the destigmatizing of ‘donor’ conception might require our society to normalize the unimportance of biological mothers/ fathers/families and discount the loss and/or meaning of biological father’s/mothers/families, not only for the ‘donor’ conceived and adoptees, but for all people no matter how they are conceived.

    This greatly concerns me.

    That being said, I also do not want to create stigmas that would promote more secrecy and shame.

    I am the offspring of an alternative family. I am living proof of the damage that results from these types stigmas. More than anything else in this world, I want to take all the shame away from my parents and my biological father (and social/paternal biological family). More than anything else in this world I would have loved for my dad and my father to have embraced each other because, at my core, I really wanted everyone to be okay with this. I wish I could have had 3 dads (my step father was my second dad).

    That is why I support ‘donor’ conception and ’surrogacy’ being practiced in a way much, much more similar to an ideal open adoption – with open doors and open hearts.

    Although it might still have been riddled with all kinds of loyalty and conflict of interests issues, it would have been my dream alternative family.

    • Thanks for the link and the post. I think this raises such an important point, but one that is very hard to get at. It seems clear to me that at least part of why donor-conceived kids feel bad is stigma/shame. This is what I tried to get at in this post. I think I’m going to provide a fuller response to the points you’ve raised here in my next post.

  2. As long as the institution of the Anonymous Donor persists, and long as sperm banks continue to withold information “to protect the donor’s privacy” they are institutionalizing the stigma further. It’s all fine and good to tell the children (as well as the recipients, the customers) that there’s nothing to be ashamed of yadayada but if so, what are we protecting the donor from?

  3. It seems to me it is quite likely that if some donor-conceived kids feel like freaks of nature, it’s probably because other people have made them feel that way.

    Maybe they saw Star Wars, or read the Bible, or Shakespeare. We’ll have to outlaw those, like in Brave New World.

    We should certainly outlaw sperm and egg donation, just because of how much of a waste of energy it is, how immoral it is to divert any drop of oil or any medical attention to something so utterly unnecessary. Even if the kids “turn out” fine (from what, an assembly line?), even if they turn out better, it’s a terrible use of resources and should be banned.

  4. marilynn huff

    A man who is paid for his sperm knows he is being paid for more than his sperm. He knows that he is being paid to be mated artificially with women that he does not know to conceive children he will abandon and never meet. He knows that he is being paid to be absent from the lives of his own offspring. It should weigh heavily on his mind that he is getting paid to create and abandon his sons and daughters into the hands of complete strangers. What if they mistreat his sons and daughters? What if the person filling his shoes is an asshole? After all that person thinks that they can buy someone elses child and call it their own? That is pretty shortsighted and selfish of them to think the child won’t miss its father just because they are willing to do the job that the father should be doing. It creates a complicated situation where the child sees the dedication of one genetic parent – how important it was to have a genetically related child; their mother chose to conceive with a stranger rather than adopt someone elses baby. This dedication stands in stark contrast to their other biological parent who was willing to sell them off and abandon them without a second thought for a few bucks. They may have a wonderful relationship with their step parent or they may not – their step parent may want to refer to themselves as the father or the other mother, may even get their name on the birth certificate creating a situation that is suppose to satisfy the child with the non genetic parent that is in their lives and just forget about the genetic parent that does not care at all about them. Its so selfish for a woman to think that the child won’t miss its real father because she has “plenty of strong male role models for him” or “has enough love to be mother and father both” or “has 2 mothers it does not mater what sex the second parent is”
    Getting knocked up by someone who abandons you and choosing to keep the child is entirely different than paying for the absense of the childs father so that someone else can pretend to be the father or so that nobody else can pretend to be the father. Deliberately creating a child who is abandoned by one side of its family is pretty raw. Pretty arrogant. Pretty self serving. You can’t buy everything – maybe on the surface for a while, but not really. You can’t really buy someone elses son or daughter and make it yours, just because you “commissioned its creation”. How foolish and naive, the child will never be theirs.

    • I bet there are many men who have provided sperm who would not agree with you. They would say they were being paid for their sperm. This might suggest a slightly different problem–that men don’t fully appreciate the nature of the transaction? I’m not sure I’d agree with that statement, but it suggests a different line of analysis.

      I’m going to quibble with your invocation of the word “mated,” though I honestly don’t think this is an important quibble. To me mating means the physical act of intercourse, and that’s not what a sperm provider does. I think you’ve suggested before (forgive me if I am wrong about it being you) that providing gametes is akin to prostitution. This is an equivalence I just don’t see. I think prostitutes are paid to provide fleeting pleasure. I don’t think that’s what you buy when you buy sperm. But again, this may be off track.

      In general I think you and I can agree that we disagree about the importance of the genetics. Indeed, I think this is the critical difference I have with many commenters who object to ART with third party gametes.

  5. Julie,
    I think comparing wearing glasses to not knowing the identity of one’s biological father is quite a leap. I also wore glasses and I don’t know who my biological father is and I can sincerely tell you that I would definitely take the glasses any day over the secrecy and inability to learn about my heritage and who my father was. If you haven’t walked in someone’s shoes how can you begin to know what that person has felt or suffered. The only way to do something positive about helping donor conceived people in the future is to ban annonymous sperm and egg donation. The reason I can be so certain about this is because I have lived with it for 58 years. So, please don’t tell me that being teased about wearing glasses is the same as feeling uncertain about your identity.
    Vicki Reilly

    • I apologize for having caused hurt. I did not mean to compare my situation to yours in terms of degree of hurt experienced. I meant only to suggest that absent a social reaction to my glasses, I would have been fine. It was the social reaction (and only the social reaction) that caused the harm to me. Social reactions can be changed and often do change over time.

      To offer another example (not because I mean it as a comparison to your circumstances, but because an illustration might help me be clear), women who were divorced were once seriously stigmatized and ostracized. (I was struck by this in a first-season episode of Mad Men.) This is clearly changed. (I know some might say it’s a bad thing, but please just bear with me for a moment.) I would expect that if you surveyed divorced women in the early 1960s you’d fine that many of them were more unhappy with themselves than divorced women are now. Surely being ostracized couldn’t have made them feel better?

  6. Articles 7 and 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child speak to the right of a child to know his or her parents, which would seem compromised by anonymous sperm donation.

    • I’m aware of the Convention and of those articles. The thing is, “parents” aren’t defined in the Convention. In the past the term has been given different meanings in different times/places. So, to take an example recently discussed on the blog, in many places the husband of a woman who gives birth is the father of the child. He’s a parent. It’s only if you read the term as necessarily meaning “genetically related parent” that you can reach the conclusion that the Convention would bar anonymous sperm donation. I’m not familiar with the drafting of the convention, which might provide some guidance here, but it isn’t obvious to me that this is what the term means.

      • Julie that definition is oxymoronic.

        The right to know ones parents assumes that it is possible to have a parent whom one does not know, else what is there to talk about?

  7. “But if I accept the study results, I think there must be other causes of harm beside the lack of candor. What are they? And what can we do about them?”

    The harm is severing of the biological connection. There is no way to undo that harm.

    The next paragraph re the genetics assignment, it simply brings the original harm to the forefront of the consciousness.

    Stigmas do not make a person feel like a freak of nature – it is the original act that does that.

    I do not see any way to undo a harm that has happened. In no other event can you undo the harm. If a mother is murdered you can not undo the harm to the child – it is a permanent loss.

    • I disagree about a couple of things here. I do think stigma can make you feel like a freak of nature. I think you could find a number of lesbians and gay men who might describe exactly this experience. But you don’t have to look there. For oh so many reasons teenagers may be made to feel they don’t fit in, that they are freaks or whatever. I fear it is woefully common for this to be compounded to an extent that there are real lasting psychological and even physical consequences. (I have to say, my stomach hurts a bit as I recall all the times in my own life I felt (or was made to feel) that I was different in a way that was not good.) So I conclude that begin stigmatized can certainly have consequences.

      You say the harm is severing the biological connection, and I guess here is where I want to push. What harm can we attribute to that all on its own? I wonder about this for a few reasons. One is that there are instances where people do not know that the connection is severed–the switched at birth cases. It’s only when they learn that they were switched that there’s all this sudden realization stuff. So was there harm before they knew? It seems to me there should be if it is the switch (and not the knowing) that causes harm. (It’s obvious to me that once you know all sorts of things happen, but that’s a reaction to the knowledge, which is a slightly (but significantly) different thing.

      Additionally, there are people raised by non-biologically linked people who suffer no harm at all. It may be that those people are in the majority, in fact, once you separate out the people who were lied to. (I think lying does a different kind of damage.) Let’s just assume for argument’s sake that some people suffer no harm. Why is that? One explanation is that it’s the surrounding circumstances that cause harm (or mitigate harm?).

      Ultimately, I want to understand the mechanism by which the harm occurs. How does the severed link itself (as opposed to knowledge and understanding of it, which are clearly socially created) cause harm?

  8. I think there’s a wide idealogical divide going on here. I think (and I’m sorry if I’m mis-paraphrasing) what Ms. Shapiro is essentially saying is that it’s possible that at least some of the harms associated with being a child of an unknown biological lineage are because of stigmatization, which can be remedied by un-stigmatization.

    There’s a big difference in my mind between that kind of harm and the other kinds mentioned above, such as the murder of a mother. For instance, take the case of child abuse. Child abuse simply harms children; un-stigmatizing the abuse of children would do little to remedy that fact, as it would not with murder of mothers. And, there are various studies citing different statistics on this, but they all essentially agree that children are VASTLY more likely to be abused by a father, stepfather, or other relative, and vastly less likely to be abused by a stranger. And yet, nobody would question whether the harms caused to abused children could be prevented by not growing up with a biological father. This is in part, I think, because the right to have children and raise a family is held so sacrosanct by our (Western? all?) culture that it is virtually inviolate.

    Some fathers and stepfathers do not abuse their children. Some, perhaps many (if the two studies we’re talking about here) children of third-party gametes consider it “not a big deal.” Which is the greater potential harm? This comparison probably seems bizarre to some, but I’ll just say that I have a personal emotional stake in this one and I consider it to be an important comparison.

    Sometimes third-party gametes (or, say, a closed adoption where the child does not know its biological lineage) are the only way for a person to have children and raise a family. If, as the studies seem to suggest, the harm to such children is caused in part by the stigmas attached to it, stigmas which can be changed, then what justifies the denial of the right to have and raise children to those who cannot do so via their own gametes? Should we place gross restrictions on all biological fathers and stepfathers because the likelihood that they will abuse their children is relatively high?

  9. Eliza,

    Lets change my analogy to the mother dies in childbirth – the child has lost his/her mother and will be harmed by that loss. It is the same harm that is caused by severing the biological tie. Stigma’s reopen the wound per se of the original harm – but the stigma does not cause the original wound.

    I am a closed record adoptee born at the middle of that social experiment of closed records adoptions so perhaps understand the subject a bit more vicerally…

    • There’s actually interesting literature comparing children of parents who have died to children of parents who have given them up to adoption. In both instances, the genetic link is severed and the child has no connection to the absent person. But controlled for other factors, the children of parents who die are typically less troubled. You can see many reasons why this might be. Thus, the child placed for adoption might wonder why her/his parent put them up for adoption, where their parent is now and so on. The child whose parent dies doesn’t have the same set of questions. And people respond differently to these two children, I think.

      This suggests to me that it isn’t just the severing of the genetic link that matters, but the larger (social) context that surrounds it.

  10. Julie,

    Perhaps you are correct in that it is not the actual severing of the genetic link but the social context around it once the child is old enough to understand but in adoption the infant can tell the difference which played out in me as an infant according to my parents. I have always known I was adopted, adoption was never hush hush, I grew up with other adoptees in my circle of friends. We were never treated differently but I felt different and connected more with the adoptees in my circle. No stigmas were in my consciousness. I also clearly recognised that my mom and dad looked like and acted like their other family members and that none of us in my family looked or acted remotely alike – we were all very different – there was no genetic mirroring that I saw in biological family members that made up my family and I craved that connection.

    It is hard to put into words but even those I have talked to who were adults when they found out they were adopted, many of them somehow felt the disconnect in their youth and it was almost a sense of relief once they got past the anger of being lied to their entire life.

  11. Marilynn Huff

    Julie you used the term “Donor Conceived” so many times in this post and on another of your recent posts you gave me a hard time because I said that the men selling their sperm know that they are anonymously conceiving and abandoning their offspring. You said you can hardly understand how I could say the donors are conceiving anything when they donate sperm yet you use the term donor conception all the time. And they are suppose to remain anonymous to the children that they conceive, that part is true, they sign a form saying that they waive any rights over their children once they are born. That’s true, they abandon their parental rights and responsibilities in advance of the birth of their children – sketchy but true.

    • I think it’s like this:

      Man donates sperm. No conception.

      Sperm is used (mixed with egg). Conception. In fact, “donor conception.”

      So children can be “donor conceived,” but a man can have donated sperm without there being a donor conception.

      • Marilynn Huff

        That is the biggest load of hogwash I have ever heard. The donor conceived the child with the woman that paid for the service. They used an intermediary to collect the sperm, they never met but the result is that the donor conceived a child.

        Does the donor have offspring? Yes. Are all people conceived by their progenators? Yes. Did the donor know he was giving up his sperm for the conception of a child? Yes. Did he intend to conceive a child? Yes, yes he did because his sperm count and mobility or whatever they call it has to be conception worthy for him to sell his sperm. Also if the man giving the sperm was the woman’s husband and they just needed some clinical support to jump start their pregnancy – would the husband and wife have conceived a child together or would the fact that he jkd off into a cup mean that he had not in fact conceived a child?
        Is intent the determining factor behind whether or not a man conceived a child? Really? Because last time I checked there are tons of men paying child support on children that they did not intend to conceive. The fact that they did not intend to conceive a child when they were having sex, does that mean that they did not conceive a child? Does there have to be sex for conception to take place? No. Then a man need not have sex in order to conceive a child. Does a man need to intend to conceive a child in order for conception to take place? No. Then a man can conceive a child without intending to do so and without actually having sex. In that instance it would be someone taking and using his sperm without his permission.
        He has offspring which means that he conceived children albeit with the assistance of a laboratory technician. But he did conceive children. Good grief.

        • Marilynn,

          The sperm that is sitting right now in a sperm bank: is it a conceived child? What if it’s never used to concieve a child?

          • The man gave his sperm with the intent to create a child. Obviously, his sperm has not created a child until it fertilizes the egg and gestated/birthed. The man then becomes a biological father, the woman whose egg is fertilized becomes a biological mother, the womb the fetus is gestated in becomes a gestational mother. The offspring could have 1 or more social parents or he could be raised in an institution without any social parent but everyone of us has/comes from a biological mother and father – regardless of intent.

  12. Marilynn Huff

    no the frozen sperm is not a conceived child. If his sperm is not used to conceive a child then he will not have conceived a child with the sperm from that particular donation. Once his sperm is used to conceive a child he will be one of the two people that conceived a child together. The child will have been conceived by an anonymous man and a woman who paid the anonymous man. Nobody at the lab will remain in the equasion.

    The fact that the guy does not deposit his sperm personally into the body of the woman whose egg was fertilized does not mean that the resulting child was not conceived by him. If you have 0ffspring you conceived a child – maybe you were raped and it was against your will, or maybe you were drunk and don’t remember having sex, or maybe you wore a rubber and did not mean for it to happen, but once fertilization occurs you have conceived yourself a child.

    Also please note that the guy gave his sperm to the clinic for the purpose of conceiving children. If it is never used to conceive a child – then he won’t have conceived a child. Its not the act of putting it in the cup that gets the guy to have offspring. He personally did not take an eye dropper and put his sperm on the chicks egg if that is what you mean? Well then if the person that does the mechanics of putting the sperm on the egg conceives the child then that would be really confusing or is it the person who wants to have the sperm put on the egg that conceived the child but only if they paid for it?

    Who reproduced to conceive the child. Not the lab tech not the fertile woman’s infertile husband or her perfectly fertile same sex spouse. The donor the anonymous paid provider conceiver.

  13. Not sure how much this matters to all, but I’d just like to point out that in general, even in the old fashion way, the moment of conception most often is not simultaneous with intercourse.

    The chances of successful fertilitization are highest when sperm is introduced into the female reproductive tract, shortly PRIOR to ovulation.
    Thus, to quote an unknown source, while you may have had hot sex the night before, you could have actually conceived while doing the laundry the next morning….

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