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.