Lesbian Family Studies: Known vs. Unknown Donors–Maybe It Doesn’t Matter?

I suspect this study is likely to ignite at least some controversy.    It’s the latest paper to draw on a longitudinal study of lesbian families (handily enough called the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study)  that began in 1986.  

The researchers here looked at data collected when the kids being tracked were 10 and 17 and compared the psychological well-being of children with known sperm providers and those with as-yet-unknown sperm providers.  (The latter group includes kids whose provider’s identity will be available when the child turns 18 as well as those whose identities will not be revealed.)     The bottom line:  

Our findings indicate that donor type has no bearing on the development of the psychological well-being of the offspring of lesbian mothers over a 7-yer period from childhood through adolescence. 

(That’s literally the last line of the study.) 

There are a couple of reasons why this conclusion interests me.  First of all, the question of known vs. unknown sperm providers is a big one for many lesbians (and single women) considering having children.   It’s one people really fret about.   Yet the finding here suggests that maybe it’s not that big a deal.   (Granted, they’ve only followed the children to age 17.   It’s also a small sample and I’m sure there’s more to be said about this.  But still, this is what the study concludes.)  

I suppose it is possible that what matters is not whether the sperm provider is known or unknown but rather how the mother(s) feel about that.  Perhaps if they are comfortable/contented with the choice than it is likely their children will be.  In which case it is worth the fretting, in only so that you can figure out what’s important to you. 

The second reason why this study interests me has to do with the ongoing discussion here about the well-being of donor-conceived people.   (See the earlier discussion about the Pratten case for a general taste of that.)    

I’m sure some will say that it doesn’t matter whether you have a known or an unknown provider, as all who are donor conceived are in some way in the same boat–not being raised by the man who provided the sperm.   I don’t think this study addresses that view, at least not that I can see right now, so I’m going to set that aside.  

But for many people the critical question is whether kids should have a relationship with/can contact/know the man who provided the sperm.   And this study suggests that overall it doesn’t matter much whether they do or not.   

I don’t think this invalidates the experience of individuals for whom it does matter.    Population studies like this don’t yield those sorts of findings.    Instead it is relevant to questions like whether people should be allowed to elect to use anonymous sperm providers.   Since the study concludes that children are equally well-0ff whether women use known or unknown providers, it supports giving women that option.    


26 responses to “Lesbian Family Studies: Known vs. Unknown Donors–Maybe It Doesn’t Matter?

  1. “Granted, they’ve only followed the children to age 17. It’s also a small sample”

    Exactly. The conclusion and the study don’t really say much at all. How the participants were recruited and who/how the reporting is done all points to a bias.

    And didn’t you already blog about this study (h ttp ://julieshapiro .wordpress. com/2010/06/07/studies-studies-weve-all-got-studies/)?

    I had blogged about it and referenced your post here: (h ttp ://familyscholars. org/2010/06/07/us-national-longitudinal-lesbian-family-study-psychological-adjustment-of-17-year-old-adolescents/)

    • This is actually a new paper (published in December, 2010) drawing on data from the ongoing study. I did blog about an earlier paper (addressing a slightly different question) drawing on the same data.

      I never know quite what to make of studies like this. Is anyone doing the research unbiased? You’d only work in the field if it interested you and wouldn’t that mean you had given it some thought, formed some opinions?

      I think the best we can hope for is enough transparency so that potential methodological flaws can be examined. That’s why I noted the limitations of this study (and the authors themselves noted some.) I’m not an expert in the fields relevant, but I do not see obvious ways that potential bias infects the study, which is what you’d want to look for, it seems to me.

      Ultimately the question is the one I raised in that earlier post–about we all have studies. Do we just get to pick and choose among the results, taking the ones we like? Do we wait for something akin to a consensus to emerge? Do we defer to experts who can tell us which studies we should accept–and why do we trust the experts?

      All that said, I do not think social science research is useless. Twenty years ago there were a small number of small studies about children being raised by lesbians and gay men. They suggested the children weren’t particularly worse off than those raised by heterosexual men and women. Over time I think the propositions advanced in those studies have for the most part proved sound. A substantial body of studies and meta-studies have reached the same conclusions.

      I don’t say that because I think the same arc of history will repeat itself here, but rather to suggest that over time more and more studies may be done which will bring greater clarity and understanding. I know there are some forthcoming this year from a variety of sources, and I’ll certainly watch for them.

  2. Yes, I supposed bias is every where, all the more reason to conduct a study (like this one) with out the limitations that the lesbian family study had:
    * The recruitment was not random and participants were concentrated in an urban area (more affluent) not representational of the general population of lesbian headed families.
    * The sample was very small
    * The results relied primarily on parent reporting (who are aware of the study and most likely have a interest/bias towards wanting the results to reflect highly of lesbian headed families)

    And conduct more large scale studies that rely solely on the autonomous adult offspring’s perspective. In my very biased opinion, I think more studies using a similar methodology as the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” study is needed. Which was:
    *Larger representation of soci-economic/ethnic demographics
    *Larger sampling than most other studies of adult “donor conceived” offspring
    *Had comparison groups of adoptees and bio-mother/father raised adults

    Looking forward to the upcoming studies
    http ://www .donorsiblingregistry. com/research. php
    But of course, they too will have their limitations.

    • Karen, your reference to the sample being urban and affluent is interesting, because similar patterns can be found in almost all studies on lesbian mothers. I myself have conducted research in the area, and despite trying extremely hard to build a more diverse sample, it was simply impossible to create one that represented the actual diversity of the lesbian community. There is some speculation in the field, ithat at this point in time the majority (though by no means all) of lesbian couples who are having children are in fact white, middle to upper class, older than average mothers, urban (lesbians and gay men disproportionately live in urban areas because of greater social acceptance) and extremely well educated. For example, a study in Australia of about 240 lesbian mothers found that over 30% of them had a post-graduate degree, compared to 3% in the general population. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case – the most common being that middle class, educated white women enjoy sufficient privilege to risk doing something that might be critiqued within wider society. However, as lesbian parenting becomes more accepted, I think we will see some demographic changes, but at this point in time I’m not sure it’s actually helpful to say a study on lesbian mothering is necessarily unrepresentative simply because the majority of participants are urban, affluent and well educated.

      • Interesting points Fiona. But I don’t at all agree with Julie Shapiro’s suggestion that known vs. unknown doesn’t matter (according to this ONE study) for the offspring of lesbian headed families. I think there is considerable reason to question the results of this small sampled/demographically limited/parent reported study. We need to hear more (honestly/anonymously?) from the adult children of lesbian families conceived from “sperm donors”.

        One of the 15 major findings in the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” (http ://familyscholars. org/my-daddys-name-is-donor-2/) study:

        “Meanwhile, compared to those born to single mothers or heterosexual
        couples, those born to lesbian couples seem overall to be somewhat less
        curious about their absent biological father, and somewhat less likely to
        report that they are hurting. However, substantial minorities of those born to lesbian couples still do report distressing experiences and outcomes, for example agreeing that the circumstances of their conception bother them, that it makes them sad to see friends with biological fathers and mothers, and that it bothers them that money was exchanged in their conception.
        Nearly half (46 percent) of the donor offspring born to lesbian couples
        in our study agree their sperm donor is half of who they are, and more
        than half (59 percent) say they sometimes wonder if their sperm donor’s
        family would want to know them. Finally, more than one-third of donor
        offspring born to lesbian couples in our study agree it is wrong deliberately to conceive a fatherless child. See Table 2. (p. 109)
        Regarding family transitions, the donor conceived born to lesbian
        mothers appear only slightly less likely to have had one or more family
        transitions before age 16, compared to the donor conceived born to heterosexual married parents. See Figure 3b. (p. 116)
        Regarding troubling outcomes, even with controls, the offspring of
        lesbian couples who used a sperm donor to conceive appear more than
        twice as likely as those raised by their biological parents to report struggling with substance abuse. See Figure 2. (p. 115)”

        • Two quick points:
          First, I didn’t say (or didn’t mean to say) that known vs. unknown sperm provider doesn’t matter. I said that is what this study seems to say. I stand by that statement–that is the outcome of this study.

          Second, I have to protest your reference to the Daddy Donor study. I think the methodology is deeply flawed for a vast number of reasons, many of which were discussed around the web at the time. And to top if off, the published document (which I won’t call a study) isn’t peer reviewed. (I do believe peer review is important.) If nothing else one should separate the underlying study (which contains many intersesting findings which may or may not be valid) from the accompanying report (which is fairly obviously biased and misleading.)

          • Julie,

            I take serious issue with your accusations that the methodlogy is deeply flawed and that you so easily disregard it because it isn’t, in your words, “peer reviewed”. Let’s just focus on the study and not the document to start. You need to explain these serious accusations better – and I do think they are serious.

  3. The sampling of “my daddy’s name is donor” was not random. I was solicited to be surveyed for the study after I expressed interest in “the welfare of donor conceived children”.

    • Wow, I’d never heard that! How were you able to express the interest?

      • I contacted Elizabeth prior to the release of the study results, expressing interest requesting information.
        For transparency’s sake if Elizabeth is reading this and would like to know my real name she can contact me at hotmail.

  4. What’s more, as I commented on the Family Scholar’s blog, the study contained a clearly misleading section. Their was only one section that mentioned open donors, and expressed some reservation about it, using quotes from three donor conceived adults to back up their reservations- however all three quotes were from anonymously conceived parties, a fact which was withheld, leaving the impression that these were offspring who knew who their fathers were, and were objecting to the practice.
    I do not think that their was intent to mislead, however the reporting bias led the writer to be less critical about including them as data.

    • Kisarita,
      The results stand on their own merit and open to everyone to draw their own conclusions from. Another unique aspect of the MDND study. Most studies do not share the raw data.

      • …and those results, clearly — so CLEARLY — show that there is a problem — a BIG problem. How exactly would you make sense of it?

  5. I myself tend to accept the results of this study as possibly accurate.
    My theory is that high level parenting can offset many troublesome circumstances facec by children, donor conception among them.
    Women being better parents than men due to culture and upbringing, (as well as almost nil likelihood of being sexual abusers) a child being raised by two lesbians may be receiving better parenting.
    Just my observation in my own environment, no study, but people having children later in life also tend to be better parents I think, as they are more mature themselves.
    Again its also possible that this sample of parents were coincidentally high functioning and not representative of the general population.
    Elizabeth on her blog also suggested that high functioning parenting can offset the complications of donor conception, when she also questioned the results of the study as possibly involving more high functioning parents.

  6. “I suppose it is possible that what matters is not whether the sperm provider is known or unknown but rather how the mother(s) feel about that. Perhaps if they are comfortable/contented with the choice than it is likely their children will be. ”

    I couldn’t disagree more with this theory.
    Children do not automatically absorb their parents feelings.
    However, parental feelings can cause children to repress their true feelings, which only come out later.

    However if by “comfortable” you mean open and honest and unashamed, then yes that could be the case

    • Here’s what I meant.

      If parents are comfortable with the choices they have made, they are more likely to be open to honest discussion and perhaps to allow their children to formulate their own views. (I’d say this across the board about many parental choices.)
      If, by contrast, parents are ashamed/unhappy with the choices they have made, they are less likely to want to have an open discussion with their kids about those choices.

      I don’t mean that parental comfort with the choices will lead to kid comfort with the choices. I mean (and I think this is the proposition you might agree to?) that parental comfort will result in an environment where discussion is easier. Further, I’m inclined to think that open discussion is generally going to be better for kids than repression.

      I didn’t mean to assert that open discussion would mean the kids reached a particular conclusion about the topic. I need to think a bit more before I make that assertion.

  7. I’m not sure if that was how all participants were recruited, it might have been how SRBI conducted the preliminary pilot study which you can read more about on page 119 – 122 of the MDND report (http : //familyscholars. org/my-daddys-name-is-donor-2/) – along with the all the raw data starting on page 82.

    • I said this earlier and I will say it again–I think the raw data is one thing and the publicshed report another. The report seems to me riddled with flaws–it quotes anecodotally all the time without support for the quotes being representative. The underlying study data, which I confess I have not looked at since summer, is a different matter and may be more useful. I think it is rather a shame that the study ended up attached to the report as it makes it harder to consider the underlying data fairly.

      • The raw data is what I meant when I refer to the MDND study. The results stand on their own merit. I thinks it’s really hard to refute that there aren’t problems involved with the DC results vs. adopted and bio-parent raised. There REALLY is a big problem regardless of whether you want to agree or disagree or somewhat agree with the conclusions drawn from it.

        • To Karen: I think this is a useful conversation and I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring your comments, but I may not be able to get a thoughtful response up until tomorrow. If you could bear with me on that, I’d be greatful.

          Having drawn attention to the difference between the published report and the underlying data, I also want to go back and make sure that I was clear enough about which things I meant to complain about where. It sounds like we can agree to talk more about the data and less about the report? (There are many things I’d say about the way the report was presented, but perhaps that’s not what you’re taking issue which?)

        • Okay, at the moment, what I am looking at is the 135 page document that I think is the report and perhaps not the raw data. The end of the report (page 82 on) appears to have some of the data. I think Elizabeth Marquardt sent me a link to some of the data as well, but I haven’t gone back to find the link or review the data. All of which is to say–the comments I make here are only about the document I have before me. Further, it is hard to separate out the report from the data (that is included in the document I have).

          One limitation I’ll note at the outset–the population studies is in the 18-45 range, I believe? Assuming data was collected in 2010, that means that the youngest subjects were born in 1992. The oldest were born in 1965. Given that long time span and the extent to which social attitudes towards ART may have shifted during that time, it would be helpful to separate out the responses by age. What I have doesn’t do that. Similarly, children born to lesbian parents in 1970, say, might very well have a very different experience from children born to lesbian parents in 1992–not because of the ART part, but because the social position of lesbians has changed qutie a bit in those decades. Thus, I think keeping the data together (which is what the report I’m looking at seems to do) is fairly problematic.

          To say things about donor anonymity vs known donors it seems to me you’d have to break down the data in yet another way. I don’t see that done. And surely to evaluate a question about whether you worry that your parents lied to you, you’d want to examine those who were open about using third-party sperm from those who weren’t, wouldn’t you? I don’t see that done.

          I won’t go further as it may be that I’m not even looking at the right thing. But all this troubles me, especially as it is then coupled with the report which very clearly cherry-picks the results. (For instance, only 7% of the donor conceived chose “daddy” as one of the words they’d use for “donor” and yet the report uses that very term.)

          Now you may be looking at different data–the raw data as you say. And I’d certainly have to go look at that to fully engage with you on this. But having looked again at the entirely of what was published, I will stand by saying it is problematic.

          I’m happy to look further/think further, especially if you point me to the raw data, particularly the raw data that documents the big problem.

          • The raw data is all available to you and everyone on line (starting on page 82 which you can down load here: http : //familyscholars. org/my-daddys-name-is-donor-2/)

            The data could and I hope will continue to analyzed. We attempted to pull out the results of most concern in the overview but it does not answer all the questions (no one study ever can) and certainly shows that this topic needs further exploration. But I firmly stand by the fact that the results for the donor conceived are very troubling especially when compared w/the adoptee and bio-parent raised results. Suggesting that making donor conception more normalized (socially accepted) does not really address many of the problems (although in some circles that might be perceived as in *their* best interests).

            RE: Peer review process – David Blankenhorn addressed this on the Family Scholars blog: http : //familyscholars. org/2010/07/12/peer-review-and-scholarly-excellence/

            RE: Methodologies – Elizabeth Marquardt addressed this in an article published in BioNews: http : //www . bionews . org . uk/page_68162 . asp

  8. I think these studies are a waste of time. Each person’s life experiences are predicated on very unique individual circumstances with all kinds of subtle variables; the real issue is why should the law go out of its way to help people conceal their identity and the identity of their relatives from their own offspring. Why should the people that create a child be any less clearly documented than the people that raise the child.

    • Surely here we part company. If we are making general rules that apply to everyone (which is, in a sense, what law is) then I think we need to consider how those rules match up with general experience. So for example, there are individual instances where adoptions end badly. If you hear one or two stories like that, do you then say “let’s ban adoption?” I wouldn’t/don’t. Instead, I’d look for information generally about adoption. It turns out that for the most part adoption works well. Therefore, while I might try to think about how to improve the outcomes in those problem cases, I won’t advocate barring adoption.

      I know lots of us (me included) operate on our intuition a lot of the time. But that’s really not the best way to make law. While it’s not hard to articulate problems with studies (individually or generally) it does seem to me that carefully done, subject to scrutiny, they advance our knowledge of the world beyond our own experience. That’s really important if you’re one of the people who makes the rules or think about what the rules should be.

  9. Excuse me for being so contradictory but I just clicked “LIKE” on both Marilyn and Julie’s comments on the value of studies. I think you both made great points!

  10. Studies such as this focus on known v unknown- however in both cases the child doesnt get info until 18 when they are already ‘grown up’- (if the parents use a sperm bank and go through the legal channels)
    ‘Identity’ is key – and chilldren need to know- deserve to know- where they come from. It is part of who they are- and doesnt have to be threatening to the ‘real’ parents. Some children are more curious than others- and there might be more of a desire to know the biological father for example if there were regular personality clashes- or differences in outlook, personality etc. The child might be more likely to think ‘my (real) dad would understand’ etc. Some children dont care about the ‘donor dad’ because they consider the real parenting to have been done by whoever has actually put in the work. Ans many fall somewhere inbetween.
    It also makes a difference regarding parental set up- a straight couple where the child looks like the ‘father’ raises less questions- when it is a single parent or lesbian couple other kids – and society- wants answers. Its just how life works. Imagine as a child if you dont have those answers. For me (as a child behaviour therapist) the issue is about information for the child- given sensitively and at an approrpriate age- although this changes- the questions change at different stages of life. All children are different- however information should be available- not just statistics but ‘real’ information – likes, dislikes, interests, funny stories- making the man real- the man who is a part of that child forever. Its also about educating parents with regards to child psychology- and learning how to really communicate with their child- to help the child have a positive self-image- regardless of various factors. Many children – now adults- are talking about a feeling of loss, when not given the information they wanted- and I think we need to pay attention to the research that comes out over the next decade – people are becoming more vocal- and we should take heed of how decisions affect people. And at the same time realise that every situation is different.
    FSDW (created 2004) seeks to address these issues- with donors usually sharing alot of info- often happy to meet the child if he or she wishes- but maintaining the boundaries as ‘donor dad’- as would a biological parent with open access within adoption. Only time will tell on how these work- so far so good.
    The world is changing- and the laws needs to change to acknowledge these arrangements- private donation arrangements that enable the potential parent/s and donors make their own choices and have more freedom to share information and meet that individuals child’s needs. After all, it is the children who dont get a say in this – and yet are often the most affected by adult decisions.
    So while there may be no real difference in known v unknown- from clinics- there is a whole world of difference for a child who is able to learn about their heritage at an early age- and that option hasnt so far been researched, as it is so often kept secret. The Children Deserve to Know Where They Come From campaign seeks to get people talking about this – much more from a child’s perspective. There are difficulties in most arrangements involving people!- however that doesnt mean we shouldnt try to work out solutions- that will benefit all in the future. A future where a ‘traditional family’ is a redundant term.

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