Newsweek Finds Donor Conceived Coming Out of the Closet

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.

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10 responses to “Newsweek Finds Donor Conceived Coming Out of the Closet

  1. It really does not matter if the kids are alright or if the kids are freaks of nature, in fact I’m coming to believe that “the best interests of the children” is not what we need to look at in terms of reshaping public policy. As you’ve pointed out “the best interests of children” is too easily argued by people either for or against disclosure and anonymity. What it does is create a circular debate that gets rather boring and accomplishes nothing other than publicity for people who call themselves donor conceived. I’m also tired of hearing people whine about their rights to know where they came from. Yes, I know that is exactly the argument I used in favor of total disclosure a year ago. I still believe in total disclosure but I’m weary of the debate. I learned from reading your blog Julie that anecdotal and scientific studies demonstrating the negative experiences of people conceived anonymously can be countered with annecdotal and scientific studies about the positive experiences of people conceived anonymously. I actually have very little written on the positive experiences of people conceived anonymously, but you’d say thats because they are so happy they don’t bother to talk about it.
    If the law is going to change to end anonymity and mandate absolute disclosure its going to have to have nothing to do with how the kids feel or how the people paying feel or how the people conceiving feel. Its going to have to come down to demonstrating that nondisclosure and anonymity have undermined the statistical accuracy of vital records and stymie researchers efforts to reduce infant mortality, birth defects, premature births and fetal death. Researchers cannot have a comprehensive understanding of how parental health impacts the health of children when they are analyzing the health of people who are not the parents of the child.

    I’m suggesting that for record keeping purposes the identities of a child’s maternal and paternal parents are in fact eminent domain. Birth records really need serve more as a pedigree you’ve mocked than a means to establish custody and support. . That is not to say that people could not continue to conceive children children outside of marriage with people paid through fertility clinics, they just should not be identified as parents in the way they are now.

    Its not possible to undo a lie told to the government by telling the truth to the child. While the kid may be alright, the researchers trying to reduce infant mortality, fetal death, premature delivery, birth defects, male and female infertility – they are not alright, they are foolishly tracking the outcomes of births, healthy and unhealthy, to people who did not actually reproduce. Meanwhile a man conceiving anonymously has no idea that he had a child with downs syndrome, his health history would be relevant not only to the child but to researchers trying to understand indicators in people likely to have children with downs syndrome. Had the man who reproduced been identified as the child’s father he may have chosen not to continue spreading his seed prolifically. Once kid might have been enough for him. If I were taller prettier and better educated I could have donated my eggs because I was fertile and healthy – but the women who received them would have had late term fetal deaths and still born children, and their doctors could not have understood why because genetic testing would not pick up the thrombofilia. Only after tons of losses did they identify the problem in me, make me high risk and help me get one baby to live past a day. I could have spread that heart ache to 10 or 15 women by not being identified as the mother of a child being delivered by someone else. Releasing identities 18 years after the fact is much too late to help anyone

  2. “I’m Legit”
    http : //www . youtube . com/watch?v=PZbKNJUyGQ0

  3. Why is it a crisis? It seems like a variation on an old theme, its hard for a woman to find a good man. Hey we all have different criteria when we are shopping for someone to father our offspring and for some women anonymous is just the ticket. Why though is it a crisis worthy of a PSA by the government no less?

    The guy said the clinics don’t have the money to increase public awareness adding that “Everbyody is aware of the need for blood donation …” I hope it occurs to him that starting a new life is not the same as saving an existing one. Its very strange to me that one could equate the need to donate sperm with the need to donate blood.

    I think its a sign of being a responsible adult to not randomly go around procreating not taking responsibility for those lives and not caring particularly who does. A decrease in anonymous conception is an increase in personal accountability. Always good for a country when people hold themselves accountable for their own actions.

  4. Again, forget all the commentary on the report – just read/look at the results. It is obvious that there are issues. Yes, the experiences of the donor conceived born to lesbians will be different from those born to heteros and SMBC’s but there are many similarities between the 3 groups of donor conceived – again, compare/contrast the results for yourself but you cannot just pick and choose the results to support your own particular bias (as you claimed we did) – pull back and look at the full picture – forest from trees. There are common themes…

    Regarding the Newsweek article – I actually think that it is the donor conceived offspring of the single parent and lesbian parent families who are the MOST invisible. The Industry FULLY supports the parent(s) – but they are deaf, blind and mute to the children – regardless of their legal parentage.

    Quote from Newsweek article:

    “Phillips concludes: “Gay, not gay—the child is going to have feelings around it. To be in denial about it doesn’t help the situation.”

    In fact, The Sperm Bank of California, which serves a large lesbian and single-mother-by-choice clientele, has taken the lead in the United States when it comes to transparency in donation. “TSBC has always been about building families, rather than focusing on pregnancies alone,” says Joanna Scheib, associate adjunct professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, and the bank’s research director. Scheib conducts her own studies and finds that family dynamics is the key factor in the well-being of the children of specifically same-sex couples. A recent study by Nanette Gartrell published in the journal Pediatrics arrived at a similar conclusion. The bank, which grew out of a women’s health cooperative and is still nonprofit, has pioneered an Identity-Release program, the first of its kind in the U.S., where donor-conceived offspring can access their information at the age of 18.”

    • The use of third-party gametes by single women and lesbian couples is so obvious (as in, it is pretty apparent it was done) that I think the dynamics about dealing with the issues it raises are quite different. Secrecy is not much of an option, for instance. And the sperm provider hasn’t been used to make up for a “deficiency,” as it were, for one of the planned/intended/functional parents, in the same way a sperm provider has made up a male partner’s inability to produce usable sperm. These things might well make it easier for lesbians/single women to choose those identity release donors–so long as the law makes it clear that those gamete providers do not possess legal rights that destablize the planned family. This last caveat is crucial and it is why I have said in the past that those who care about people having access to information about the gamete providers might actually want to support laws that make clear that gamete providers are not legal parents.

  5. “These things might well make it easier for lesbians/single women to choose those identity release donors–so long as the law makes it clear that those gamete providers do not possess legal rights that destablize the planned family. ”

    The law does make it clear, in all 50 states an anonymous donor has no legal parental status. An identity release donor is anonymous at the time of donation. That does not mean we can not call him a father.

    • I’m not sure your statement is really correct. In some states sperm providers are legal parents. Now if a sperm provider is anonymous, no man will claim the rights and it may be easier to terminate the rights, too. But the anonymous provider does, at least in theory, have the rights.

      Perhaps this is splitting hairs and doesn’t matter. But there is a larger point that I wish more people understood–the legal status of a sperm provider is not the same in all states. Complete anonymity is one form of protection in states where providers would otherwise have rights.

  6. “That does not mean we can not call him a father”

    I agree for the same reasons that another “donor conceived” man wrote here:
    http://donatedgeneration.blogspot.com/2011/02/ill-conceived-lexicon.html

  7. Karen I’m very happy to see you stand firmly on common ground with other people whose mother’s wanted their father’s to be anonymous. Your Mom’s may not have known your Dad’s but they did make decisions together as your parents. Your Mom’s looked for men willing to father but not raise you, and hopefully your father’s were willing participants in that decision to conceive you but not raise you. In some way I bet your father’s all believed it served your best interests. Parents are human and make mistakes in judgement is all I can say about that.

    Problem with anonymity is you and your Mother’s cannot be sure they meant to conceive children anonymously with them or if they would have willingly abandoned their obligations to raise you had they known you were theirs and you were born. That scares me and it really ought to have concerned your mother’s. There are lots of fertility clinic accidents in the press, those are the ones that are discovered, there are doubtless others not discovered but people don’t know for certain that they’ve conceived a child with a willing party because they are anonymous. Anonymity allows clinics to conceal their mistakes and outrageous crimes against patients like at UC Irvine where patients were unknowingly being forced to conceive children with other patients and embryos were implanted in the bodies of the wrong women – its been more than 10 years and the custody battles are still going on.
    Your wise to start referring to the men who fathered you as your fathers because you do have a right to know your fathers having the right to know a donor is a big grey area. You need to know and be known to your father and his family over the course of your life rather than waiting until your 18. Waiting until your 18 puts you all your siblings and other members of your Father’s side of the family at an unnecessary disadvantage with regard to your overall health because the health of one person can be relevant to another and knowing that a sibling is having a medical problem can catch it before it becomes a problem in another, stuff like that. Ensuring you know and are known to both sides of your family places children in the best possible position to grow and be healthy and that is your Parent’s responsibility before your 18 after your 18 maintaining those family connections is your own responsibility. This is why I feel that its not enough for father’s to agree that their children can know their names 18 years down the road. Your health could be relavent to his other children who are of course your siblings and your health may be relavent to other members of your family as well you never know and it goes back and forth visa versa. Its one thing to not know your father’s side of the family because he really abandoned your mom and put her in a jamb that there is nothing she can do about. She can do something about this. So can he. They don’t have to put you all at this disadvantage, its not fair to raise you in a vacuum that way. The law would do well to make parental anonymity tantamount to abandonment and keeping the existence of a child a secret from the child’s own relatives places the whole family at an unnecessary disadvantage because knowing about the health problems in one can prevent them from ever being experienced by another – its not right to prevent that ongoing exchange of information while the child is growing up,

  8. It feels like in every other circumstance parental anonymity outside the adoption process (which could use some fixing too) is considered criminal neglect, abandonment. People who conceive anonymously may not conceive on the day they’re in the clinic but they did plan out and agree to conceive their offspring with the help of the clinic so that when their offspring are born they are really in no different a position than anyone else with offspring that fails to take care of that child.

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