This post is spurred in part by some of the comments on yesterday’s post. That post was itself an extension of the two that preceded it. All of which is to say you might want to start a bit further back before reading here.
The Family Scholar’s paper I’ve discussed focusses on the well-being of the donor-conceived. A number of the questions (they are included at the end of the report, around pages 88-94, for instance) ask about how the respondent feels. It’s here you will find information such as that 8% feel like “a freak of nature” while 26% feel “special” and 43% feel it is “not a big deal.” (It appears to me that this was a question where you could check all that apply, so the percentages recorded in all the answers total more than 100%. “Not a big deal” scores the highest percentage of all the possible answers.)
What I suggested last time was that the way people feel about being donor conceived is probably affected by (if not determined by) the reactions of those around them and by the image of the donor conceived within the general culture. I think this is relatively uncontroversial: If a person is or feels stigmatized because of some characteristic, it generally makes the person feel bad.
Stigmatization is not always a bad thing. It’s a powerful social force and, like many forces, it can be used for good or for ill. For instance, I think it is a good idea to stigmatize driving while intoxicated and also teen-age smoking. Yes, it might make some people feel bad about themselves, but I think that helps deter behavior which I’d say is objectively dangerous and undesirable.
I should also note that there are of course degrees of stigmatization, and perhaps there is also a sort of negative social judgment that falls short of being called stigma. Perhaps the language I am using here is not quite sufficiently refined, but it is the best I can do at the moment. I think the general points hold.
To return to the topic at hand, I think one critical question is whether there is anything inherently undesirable about using third-party gametes. If there is, then stigmatizing their use will reduce undesirable conduct, which you would say was a good thing.
But I don’t think you can simply argue that using third party gametes is undesirable because people produced via third party gametes feel bad about the circumstances of their creation. They may feel bad, in whole or in part, because of the social judgment that the use of third-party gametes is a bad thing. Certainly to the extent they do feel bad, stigmatization cannot be helping. If you altered the initial judgment that the practice was wrong, you’d find that at least to some degree, people conceived via third party gametes would feel better about the circumstances of their conception and about themselves.
I will offer a concrete example of the what I’m referring to. Please note that I do not mean to suggest that the people who I’m about to discuss are similar to the donor-conceived. I only mean to use this as an illustration of the extent to which reasoning could be circular.
Thirty years ago it was widely said that being lesbian or gay was unhealthy, or sick, or immoral or otherwise bad. There were few if any positive role models for young lesbian and gay people. And many people who were lesbian or gay felt bad about themselves. (You can find studies that reflect this.) As social attitudes changed (as being lesbian/gay became destigmatized) people had less reason to feel bad about themselves. They no longer were lead to believe they were sick. Instead, there was increasing understanding that they were normal, though perhaps different. As a result, indicators of the general psychological well-being of lesbian/gay people rose.
Thirty years ago you could have used the fact that lesbians and gay men felt bad about themselves to argue that being lesbian or gay was bad or unhealthy. But you’d just be closing the circle–observing the effect created by the initial judgment.
I’m not suggesting that we ignore the harm that is reflected in the studies, though it is worth remembering, as the report notes, that a substantial number of donor conceived people don’t appear to be suffering any harm. But we cannot address the harm until we know its cause. I don’t know how to unearth the cause of the harm–how to identify how much of it might be caused by shame, secrecy, social ostracization and the like. But I wonder sometimes if blanket assertions made about the absolute importance of knowing genetic lineage or the superiority of genetic parenthood may be part of the problem.