As The Summer of the Sperm Donor Draws to a Close……

It’s the Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend–time to reflect on the summer just gone by.   I really might call this one the “summer of the sperm donor.”  (I use the word “donor” somewhat reluctantly.   You can read earlier posts on that.) 

Why call it that?  Well, for starters there have been three Hollywood movies (not one of which I have seen) where the plot turns on something having to do with insemination with donor sperm.  (Those would be The Switch, The Kids are All Right, and The Back Up Plan.)  Many people have speculated about what this sudden proliferation of movies about assisted insemination might mean.   It’s not like they’ve been standard fare every summer since who-knows-when.    I don’t have much to add, except to state the obvious.   AI must be common enough (and well-enough accepted) that it can appeal to a broad-base as a comic or dramatic premise.  Or perhaps this is only true is theory–I’m not sure if any of these movies were box office successes. 

Beyond the big screen, the release of My Daddy’s Name is Donor, a report about children conceived using donor sperm, garnered enormous amounts of press.   (You can find some of my thoughts and links to the report here.)  

I’d like to highlight my characterization of this as a report, rather than a study.   Though there is a study on which the report is based, what got the press was a document that is about as close to science as are the aforementioned Hollywood movies.  (And while I’m thinking of it, let me add that I’ve talked to some knowledgable folks about the soundness of the underlying study and I have some questions about that, too.)    Indeed, it’s probably best characterized as an advocacy piece. 

And then, there was the less-heralded but peer-reviewed study of children of lesbians born through donor conception.  This is the study I contrasted with My Daddy’s Name is Donor.  

So as the days grow shorter and the leaves start to turn, what is to be made of all this?    I can only offer a few scattered observations. 

First, for good or for ill, assisted insemination and/or the use of third-party sperm (and maybe third-party gametes more generally?) are for some reason more within the view of the general public.    Perhaps this means that a systematic consideration of the issues is more necessary.  Perhaps this means that the issues will be swept up into our over-heated, ideologically-driven political debates.   Perhaps it means there will be more serious discussion of proposals for regulation and/or legislation. 

Second, perhaps all this attention will lead more people to conduct more studies of some of the relevant issues.   While I am inclined to take a skeptical stance to lots of social science research in “hot topic” areas, I do believe in science and in the possibility of well-constructed, well-executed studies shedding important light on questions.  

In that regard, here’s a question I’d like to nominate for attention:   There are many children born through use of third-party gametes.  Some seem to be deeply troubled by the manner of their conception.  Some are untroubled.   (It might be fair to say, in the language of IM, YMMV.)  What factors contribute to the vastly different outcomes?  

I think it is important to think about this.   I know that for some, the existence of unhappy children of donor conception is a reason to restrict or abolish the use of third-party gametes.   But that seems to me at best a very hasty conclusion.   I haven’t even seen anything to suggest that the unhappy reaction is the more common one.  

Instead, I’d suggest we figure out what leads some of the self-identified donor conceived to be disturbed by the manner of their conception while others are not.    (It strikes me that it is possible that in some cases it isn’t even the manner of the conception that causes the unhappiness, but rather that the manner of their conception becomes the focus of unhappiness that has other origins.)    Most crucially, wouldn’t it be good to know what it is that some parents are doing that leads their children, conceived through the use of third-party gametes, to be at ease with their origins? 

I’m sure. that people using third-party gametes want to raise happy children.   They’d like to help their kids successfully negotiate whatever issues they face as a result of using ART.  If there are better approaches to dealing with these issues, they’d like to know them.   Shouldn’t we be trying to help them do that?

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7 responses to “As The Summer of the Sperm Donor Draws to a Close……

  1. “It strikes me that it is possible that in some cases it isn’t even the manner of the conception that causes the unhappiness, but rather that the manner of their conception becomes the focus of unhappiness that has other origins.”

    This suggestion irks me because it evokes an aspect of my own experience in which real criticism based on people’s experiences in my family and community are deflected and pushed aside because it doesn’t tow the party line.

    I was brought up in a highly fundamentalist strict religious environment, where this line of reasoning is the standard brush off to community member’s challenges to community practice and religious belief- “you are just blaming religion for your own emotional problems.” In this way the community avoids looking at itself and its beliefs honestly.

    Julie I feel that this statement of yours is the same thing. It is disrespectful of people’s feeling and experiences and not honest.

    It is your opinion that genetic relatedness does not matter.
    That is all well and good for you.
    The same way that if some people believe that prayer cures cancer and it works for them, well goody for them.

    But what you are saying is that genetic relatedness should not matter to anyone else either, and if it does, than their must be some other emotional factors operating. You are discounting what that person says about themself.

    The fact is that some people are harmed by the practice of anonymous sperm donation and some people are not. That does not mean their is something wrong than by the people who are. In the same way the fact that some people are happy and fine in a strict fundamentalist environment, does not mean that anything is wrong with the people who are not.

    Instead I would phrase it differently: Being conceived by an unknown person is a psychological stressor. Children who experience multiple other stressor factors- divorce, abuse, poverty, are more likely to be adversely affected by the method of their conception. Conversely we might say that the stress factor of the conception increases the impact of the divorce, abuse, or poverty.

    This acknowledges the potential difficulties inherent in the practice, while putting it in context of the other factors in a child’s life.

    • I accept much (but not all) of your reasoning and I apologize for being clumsy in my reasoning and my writing. I understand the point you are making–that I’m tapping to that tendancy to deny people the reality of their own experiences when it is convenient to do so.

      At the same time, I’m not willing to go quite as far to say that being conceived by an unknown person is a necessarily a psychological stessor. The other stressors you describe–divorse, abuse and poverty–are (to me at least?) undeniably stressors. I don’t accept that the manner of conception functions the same way, nor do I think there is research to support that statement. I think linking manner of conception with these other stressors implicitly suggests some sort of similarity between them and I don’t accept that, either.

      And there is a part of what I said I mean to stand by. It seems apparent that the manner of conception becomes a focus of dissatisfaction or unhappiness for some people and not for others. For some of those in the former category, the manner of conception is bound up with other issues–I’m thinking here, for example, of people who were lied to about the manner of their conception.

      It makes sense to me that for those who come believe genetic relatedness is important, having an unidentified genetic forebear will be difficult. I suppose the bottom line question, then, is why this comes to be very important to some people and not very important to others. To put slightly more personally, why do I b elieve what I believe, while you believe what you believe. I’m not sure how to answer this question, but I think it is a legitimate question to ask.

  2. So, about how to best minimize the impact of the method of conception of your child? I’d say the obvious: Do your best to make sure everything else in order. Minimize other disruptions to your child’s life. Make sure you are financially stable. Surround yourself and your kids with loving god parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and godparents. Take care of your own psychological issues. And be very careful about who you get into romantic relationships with.
    And most of all: Respect your child’s feelings about the situation, whatever they turn out to be, don’t try to talk him/her out of them.

    • Good suggestions. The first few are surely true for anyone raising children, I think (which is not to minimize their importance.) I’ll only comment on two.

      “Be very careful about who you get into romantic relationships with.” This is one that I’d say is true for all those who are raising kids and also looking for romantic relationships. Many people who use third-party gametes, however, do so within an existing romantic relationships. With that in mind, I think I’d add a cororally here: If you are using third-party gametes to concieve a child within a relationship, it’s a good idea to talk through issues around this in advance. I think this might be more complicated to heterosexual couples (where the gametes being used replace a contribution that would ordinarily come from one of the partners) than for lesbian couples (where sperm isn’t something produced by either woman.) But in both instances, you may be creating a child who will be genetically connected to one person and not the other so there are things to think about/discuss.

      “Respect your child’s feelings…whatever they turn out to be.” Agreed. I’d copule this with being open to discussion and hearing what your child’s feelings are, which I think is implicit. This one also highlights a question I raised in another comment and really what I meant to raise in this post–I’d be interested to know where those feelings come from/how they develop. Children don’t simply mmic their parents’ feelings–how do they develop? That’s something I think is worth thinking about.

  3. I would also suggest using an ID release donor but I suggest this cautiously, since not a lot is known about that. I was very disappointed that the family scholars paper did not address that at all.
    However, it seems most of the negativity seems to be coming from those conceived in total anonymity.

  4. Julie Shapiro | June 29, 2010 at 5:34 am | Reply
    You brought this issue up before and I must say I was inclined to believe you were bating your readers to prove how easy it is to manipulate liberal educated people into rationalizing discrimination. All you have to do is tap into primal fear and very liberal people will stomp all over the civil liberties of people in the minority. I took your comments from a recent post that are very similar to this post and I made my own shocking Swift like modest proposal – as absurd as yours but I’m thinking you are taking these positions on purpose to document the reaction?

    “I’d say the actual data, while interesting, doesn’t clearly point in one direction. The most obvious thing to me is that [two people with a strong relationship don’t need a piece of paper to validate their love for one another], and I suspect that is also born out by studies of [heterosexual people] too.

    The anecdotes included in the textual report are compelling. But they are merely anecodotes. There are also anecdotes from [gays and lesbians] who are quite comfortable [that their relationships are strong without needing validation from the government in the form of a marriage certificate]. These tend not to be compelling because of the nature of the story they tell–”everything fine here.”

    It’s clear that some people who are [gay and lesbian] are very unhappy [that the law will not allow them to marry members of the same sex]. I think it’s equally clear that others are not. The obvious question, it seems to me, is why the variance? What makes it okay for some people but not others?

    I see two possible answers: First, there could be other reasons that would help us understand why some people seem content and others not. I’d expect to find [high self esteem] to be one of them, but you’d have to make a serious scientific examination, I think. If you could identify the things that make people more comfortable/content/happy, then you could teach people who [feel they need to marry their partners to be happy] what to do to help themselves [lead happy fulfilling lives without being married to their same sex partners]. Or you could do other things to try to minimize or address the unhappiness.

    Second, it could be that this is just individual variation that is bound to occur. If that is so then I think you have to try to figure out where the balance lies–how much/many unhappy vs. how much/many happy. I wouldn’t say that just because some people are unhappy you [end the ban on same sex marriage].

    Of course, I think it is probably some of both, which makes it even harder to reach some firm conclusion. But perhaps because in my own experience I seem to encounter mostly contented [unmarried gays], I’m not prepared to throw the who matter out. I am prepared to try and figure out how to minimize harm. Hence my willingness to entertain policies based on the idea that the [same sex partner] is an important person “just not a” spouse.

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