There’s a new article in Newsweek that marks another major media chapter in the discussion of donor conceived children. Can it be any surprise that the article disappoints me in that it provides what is finally too superficial a view of a complicated and nuanced issue?
There’s been a great deal written here, in both posts and comments, about donor conceived children and of course there are many other places on the web about which you could say the same. What’s frustrating, then, is that the Newsweek story misses so much complexity.
For instance, there are different family configurations in which third-party sperm is used. As I see it, there are three main categories of users: single women, lesbian couples and heterosexual couples.
Historically the last category was the major user of third-party sperm but that’s shifted over time. New technologies (like ICSI) allow the use of sperm provided by a male partner with sperm that couldn’t have been used twenty years ago. Thus, heterosexual couples are far less likely to be using third-party gametes today than they were twenty or even ten years ago.
Why does this matter? Because the family dynamics of the use of donor gametes must vary between heterosexual families and either single parent or lesbian couple families. In the latter two groups not only the child but everyone involved in the child’s life must know, pretty much from the get-go, that third party sperm was used. In the former category, it might be deemed a private matter, not revealed to those around the family and sometime not revealed to the child, either. (Indeed, conventional wisdom twenty or so years ago was not to tell the child. I think this has finally shifted.)
It isn’t only technology that has shifted–social ideas about donor-conception have shifted, too. (And to give credit where credit is due, the voices of the donor conceived have played a role in this process.) Just as adoption is more openly discussed than it was thirty years ago, so is donor conception–even in those families where it isn’t obvious.
This matters because the category “donor-conceived children” includes all these kids–some who were not told the truth (and many would say they were liked to), some who grew up in a time when use of third-party gametes was shrouded with secrecy and shame, and some who were raised more recently. This mix makes it more challenging to generalize about the experience of the donor conceived, which in turn makes it harder to be specific about the problems that ought to be addressed by public policy.
I’m not saying it cannot be done–just that over-generalization makes it harder and the article misses an awful lot of the complexity, which I find quite unhelpful (although it may sell magazines.)
It’s also quite sloppy and/or misleading. Let me illustrate with one example. Alana S. says that donor conceived kids often speak of being “freaks of nature.” This may be how she feels and it may be her opinion about what is common. But is it really true?
Here’s one thing that makes me wonder if it is.. The article cites to the report–“My Daddy’s Name is Donor ” –about which much has been said here. Now I’m not a fan of that report (as you’ll clearly see if you read the posts following the link above. For one thing, I think the people included in the survey are all over 18, which means they are likely not representative of the donor-conceived kids growing up to day. If anything it’s a better snapshot of effects of past practices–practices that are not as generally followed–as it is a window on the present. That’s critical if you’re going to use it to make new social policies.
But put that aside for a moment. The researchers asked their subjects how they felt about being donor conceived. One of the options was “freak of nature” while another was “not a big deal.” When asked how they felt at 16, 10% chose “freak of nature” while 37% said “not a big deal.” Asked the same question in present tense, the split was 8% (for freak) to 43% (for not a big deal.) (This is on pages 92/93 of the report.) How does that square with Alana’s statement about how donor kids speak of themselves? Five times as many think it isn’t a big deal.
I don’t say this to imply that there aren’t issues we should discuss or that we shouldn’t listen to the voices of the donor conceived. It is important that we do so. But the issues raised are complicated and changing and it’s important to think both hard and carefully about it.
Finally, I think there’s an irony in the title of the Newsweek story that I cannot let go by. “Coming out of the closet” is language taken from lesbian/gay people, yet even as it appropriates the language this article hardly touches on the different context in which lesbian families operate vis-a-vis third party gametes. Thus, while the kids may be out of the closet, the families that lots of those kids live in–single parent families and lesbian families–remain invisible.