The Other Side of the Equation: The Harm of Unwanted Childlessness

[This is a continuation of an earlier series of posts.  You might want to go back and start here to get up to speed.  I won’t repeat myself at length.]

I’m trying to think carefully and systematically about the problem of anonymous gamete providers.   So far I’ve identified four types of harm that may result from their use–that’s what the earlier posts are about.   Those are concealment, medical harm, identity harm and loss of a parent.   You really do need to go read the preceding two posts to see what I am talking about.    All of these are harms reported by/experienced by at least some people who identify themselves as donor-conceived.

Though I don’t think I’ve been quite so systematic in the past, I think I’ve considered the general harms articulated by the donor-conceived in the past.    But to get a full picture here you need to look at all sides of an issue, so I think it’s important to consider, too, the harms that lead people to use ART and perhaps anonymous gamete providers.  

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here.  I am not saying that one set of harms outweighs the other.  I am not looking at solutions yet either.   I’m mostly trying to describe the landscape.    Because ART with anonymous gamete donors is available, there are donor-conceived people who can and do speak about the harms they experience.   And I think I need to take seriously their accounts of harms.   In the same way, I think the voices of people who use ART matter, too.   Their experiences are just as real and I don’t actually see any basis for according these people less respect.  (This is not the same as saying the harms are of equal gravity.  I don’t know that I will or will not say that.  I’m not there yet.)

For some people being childless is a source of terrible pain and anguish.   I will call this the harm of unwanted childlessness.

ART and use of third-party gametes is a way to address this pain.   I suppose I could say that while ART and use of third-party gametes have costs (and the experienced of the donor-conceived help us see those costs) they also have benefits.   Just as we should not ignore intangible costs, we should not ignore intangible benefits–ART and use of third-party gametes make people happier or at least alleviate pain and heartache.

I think it’s reasonable to say that people use ART because they want to have children and cannot reasonably do so without ART.    But this commonality conceals a lot of different situations.   Those who use ART (and third party gametes) include heterosexual couples with medical issues that mean one of them cannot produce gametes.   These are people who might fit a medical definition of “infertile.”   If they wish to raise a child together and if they wish to have at least one member of the couple with a genetic connection, then ART is their way forward.

Single women and lesbian couples may not meed a medical definition of “infertile” but they also need third-party gametes if they are to reproduce.   (I’m excluding gay male couples and men because they need more than just gametes, though they do need gametes.)

Now technically I think you could say they don’t need to use ART.  The women in this group could just find a likely man and sleep with him.    But I think there are legitimate reasons for deciding that this is not an okay thing to do.   And perhaps more importantly, for the moment I only want to establish that whether or not it is necessary, ART is beneficial to many of those who use it because it alleviates pain and/or makes them happier.   This, too, needs to be taken into account.


27 responses to “The Other Side of the Equation: The Harm of Unwanted Childlessness

  1. Identifying the harms for both groups is only productive to a point. I think the most practical thing to do is look at whether or not the harm is the result of some inequity in the law that can and should be corrected and then, we should organize to correct the laws which treat people unequally. Unequal treatment under the law will not necessarily be perceived as harmful to people 100% of the time; some people may not be bothered at all by it and others may be absolutely besides themselves about it, but the fact remains that the inequity itself is unjust. That is to say there is no justification, no acceptable reason or excuse for there to be one law applied to this group and another law applied to that group.

    Lets assume that all people born on US soil are entitled to be United States Citizens with all the rights and obligations that entails regardless of their race or gender or economic status. OK so the right to reproduce is protected. The law can’t dictate how many offspring citizens have. The law does not require sterilization of people with low IQs or people that make under $50,000 a year or people who are Caucasian because we have more than enough of those. The law does not forceably harvest gametes from our young and reproduce those individuals mixing and matching the best of the best to create a master race or to manufacture humans that nobody loves for organ harvesting, forbidding the people whose gametes were taken from having the right to raise their own young. Lastly the government does not penalize people who exceed the government limit on offspring the way China does. The government does not seize people’s offspring and distribute them to people better suited to parenthood. Although I suspect those last ones are less about reproductive freedom than they are about the obligation to take care of one’s own offspring. Oh and the government will not stop people from taking birth control to prevent the reproductive process from occurring.

    Now, the right to reproduce does not mean that you necessarily can reproduce. You might be infertile if your a woman or sterile if you are a male, but if you are capable of reproduction it appears that for the most part the law does is going to make citizens reproduce if they don’t want to nor does it prohibit them from reproducing if they happen to have someone to reproduce with or someone happened to reproduce with them, as sometimes happens. The law as far as I can tell is not operating against infertile or sterile people in any way. The law does treat those who cannot reproduce equally to those that can, but they are unable to reproduce so its a moot point.

    Moving on, there are people who can reproduce who don’t have anyone to reproduce with. And that is really the crux of who this post is concerned with right? Women or Men who are healthy as horses in their reproductive ability but saddled with a partner (same or opposite sexed) that they cannot reproduce with. They are unwantedly childless. How is the law treating them? So far I would say that they need to be treated legally the same as any other person capable of reproduction. Basically which is to ignore them and leave them to their own devices. Find someone to reproduce with. There is a service that helps people who don’t have anyone to reproduce with find someone to reproduce with only , that person won’t help them raise their offspring. That person won’t even aknowledge their child’s existence. To some this is a benefit and to other’s this is terribly sad. There are people who will reproduce with others so long as they can abandon their resulting offspring. Really under any other circumstances but ART it would legally be considered abandonment and it would be something that is not legal. So in that way these anonymous reproducers are not treated equally with other people who reproduce because for some reason they are legally allowed to not take responsibility for their offspring. So the right to reproduce anonymously to me seems like a protected right of reproduction however the act of not taking responsibility for ones offspring does not seem like equal treatment with other citizins whove reproduced.

    I think this dilleneation between reproductive freedom and the obligations of parenthood is at the heart of what was felt to be unequal treatment of single and lesbian women who were suffering the harm of unwanted childlessness. Why were they not being allowed to be artificially inseminated with donor sperm when heterosexual women were? Well, children have a right to be supported by both parents and heterosexual women with male partners could make it appear as if the child were being supported by both parents even if it was not true. The fact that the child was missing support from its father was not detectable and in the event they divorced the child would have that second source of financial support so they would not wind up on welfare at public expense. Single women well that creates a child with no second source of support that could wind up on welfare and Lesbian women are single in that regard until they are legally able to marry. Even when lesbian women will be allowed to marry (and the most certainly will in my lifetime) its obvious that the partner in the husband position opposite the woman who gave birth, is in addition to the child’s father who is failing to support his offspring – the way other men with offspring have to.

    I see inequitable treatment of people who cannot reproduce though too. Why are some allowed to gain parental rights without having to go through the adoption process which everyone agrees is for the protection of the children involved as well as the adults, while others are unable to do that? Well some people have the money and others do not. Thats how it boils down to me.

    • I’m not sure at what point you think identifying harms becomes impractical or what you mean by that. For the moment, I’m just trying to identify all the harms we ought to have in mind as we think about ART or third-party gametes or whatever it is. It may turn out that there are trade-offs that have to be made, but that’s at a later stage. For now, I don’t see why it is impractical to identify this as a harm.

      I’m not really talking in terms of rights here–partly because this is such an early stage. And while I agree with you that unequal treatment is something we have to watch out for, the absence of unequal treatment doesn’t mean there’s no harm. I think you’ve demonstrated that in some of the things you mention in your post. The government can treat everyone the same and still treat everyone wrongly–like saying that no one can have more than five kids, say. When you complain about that, you’re not complaining about inequity but rather about the abridgment of some freedom or other for all people.

      For the moment, I’d like to set the equality concerns and the other concerns to one side–we can come back to them later–and just focus on the harms. (It isn’t even really important where the harms come from yet.)

  2. I think offering artificial insemination to single women and women without partners who will be automatically treated as if they were biological fathers results in children only having one documented source of income to draw upon when they are in fact entitled to have financial support from their mother and father. And so it was that lesbian and single women appeared not to be treated equally – and they were not – sort of.

    It was not their reproductive rights that were being violated really. The fact that someone does not want to reproduce with you out in the real world is not a violation of your right to reproduce its just the way the cookie crumbles. The doctor that does the insemination is basically covering for a guy that is going to get a girl pregnant and slither away like a snake and not take care of his kid. The kid has a right to his support and the doctor is going to cover for him when he runs. I figure doctors found this ethically acceptable so long as they could be sure the child would not be “illigitimate” that is would have that second source of support and inheritance as if they were not the bastard child of of some unknown man. I think not inseminating single women had nothing to do with discrimination but more to do with covering their own asses because they’d be creating kids that would not have the appearance of getting what they were entitled to.

    I’ve heard many women say that they are entitled to reproduce with an anonymous man if they want and I think that is true for sure its true. But I think the problem is that men are not suppose to be anonymous to their children they are suppose to raise them and financially support them and when they refuse to do that the law helps hunt them down and orders them to pay up on the basis of DNA alone. He not only has to pay after paternity is established, he has to pay retroactively for the period of time before paternity was established because he always was the father based on DNA and therefore the child always was entitled to his financial support. This is not like the guy who did not know he got a girl pregnant and found out years later. Bottom line is that these women’s doctors know the identity of the men who are getting them pregnant and there is no real barrier to naming them on their offspring’s birth certificates because paternity could easily be established and the children would then of course be treated equally with all other children who have the right to receive support from their mother and father.

    So I don’t feel like preventing some women from being inseminated is necessarily discriminatory any more than a guy turning her down. I think its more about the degree to which the physician’s feel that they have compromised the child’s right to support and the degree to which that loss can be concealed with a father that appears to replace rather than supplement.

    In adoption the parent essentially retains or gets someone to cover for them and they tell the courts as much “hey these people are going to cover for me while I’m busy” If I owe the kid money and I get the money from some one and pay the kid its like I paid it, but if I just ditch out and someone else has to come along and give the kid money because there is this hungry kid…I have not resolved my own debt and what that other person did was in addition to what I owe. That’s what happens without adoption I think.

  3. Does the law treat childless people equally with regard to adoption? No. Children have a right to be supported by their mother and father, but they won’t be if they are adopted so the law needs to find two permanent sources of income when approving an adoption or they’ll be creating a situation where its is giving the child less financial support than he or she has a right to. I don’t think it matters whether or not those people are married or even living together. Children don’t have a right to married parents or to have parents that live together or to have parents that are straight or gay etc.

    • I’m not sure what you mean here. Do you mean does the all treat all people who might wish to be adoptive parents the same? This is perhaps a good place to say that it’s so hard to answer the “same” question. Maybe a state imposes uniform requirements on all people–must be over a certain age, say, must submit similar paperwork. But if they have some sort of minimum income requirement (must show can support the child) that will obviously exclude some people. Is that okay, because the same requirement is made of everyone? Or is it not okay, because it treats some (those who are poor) differently by excluding them? Can they require all people who wish to adopt as couples be in a couple with a person of a different sex–which might seem to treat all people the same, but effectively rules out lesbian and gay male couples.

      I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of equality concerns–they are important to me. But they are trickier than they look sometimes. And for what it is worth, all states allow single people to adopt. (I’m not sure if you’ve said something different in your comment.)

      • I am posing questions (I did think some states still did not let singles adopt).

        I think the best way to make sure that all children have the same basic legal rights with regard to what they can expect from their genetic parents is to say that all people with offspring have the same basic legal obligations.

        I think the best way to make sure that all children have the same basic legal rights with regard to what they can expect from their non genetic legal parents is to say that all people without offspring have the same basic legal obligations.

        To the extent that every child born is entitled to support from both mother and biological father – the challenge is often identifying the biological father or establishing paternity in order that the child is able to start receiving it. When paternity is not established it does not mean that child is not entitled to it…the child continues to have that equal right because the biological father is still bound to provide it he just has not been identified. If the State approves an adoption with only one parent they’ve now given the child fewer rights than before taking away the right to support from bio dad and not replacing it with support from adopto dad/parent#2. I think the State should have to find 2 adoptive parents but I don’t think they should have to be married or straight or even in love.

        • FWIW, I cannot think of any states that bar single people from adopting. It might be that Nevada bars single people who are in a cohabiting relationship with another person of the same sex from adopting, but that’s an exception to the general rule allowing single people to adopt. In some places it is impossible for both members of a same-sex couple to adopt (because unmarried couples cannot adopt together) so you end up with one member of the couple adopting, which seems a ridiculous result to me.

          I see your point about all chlidren being treated the same and entitled to two parents. I just don’t agree with it, which will take us back to that main thing we disagree about. I think the two parent presumption is driven by the biology thing.

  4. I can understand the desire to procreate and the pain when that does not happen, yet trying to weigh an adults wants and desires over the child’s real “potential” need to know for many different justified reasons just does not work for me on any type of scale. Not when there are other choices.

    I am not seeing the harm by making anonymous “donation” wrong and only known “donation” allowed.

    I think you need to start and maintain the conversation focused primarily what has been defined in the The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3.1 states:

    In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutiones, courts of law, administrativ authorities or legislative bodies the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

    I was reading a report from the 20th Anniversary Report in Canada on the Rights of the Children and a quote from page 5 is:

    “”Children are persons too!” This observation, made during the conference on the Best Interests of the Children, captures the most important reason for taking its outcomes seriously. Children, defined as everyone under the age of 18, are fully persons, equal in value and deserving as much as adults, defined as everyone over the age of 18. Children are no longer considered future persons, objects of charity, or the property of families – all of which were dominant approaches to children in history.”

    • I’m not yet going to weigh harms against each other or say which are more important. I know that’s down the road, but here I just want to acknowledge the harm of unwanted childlessness. It seems important to do this just as it is important to acknowledge the harm articulated by those who identity as donor-conceived.

      Here’s something else I’ve been wondering about. It’s true that the individuals conceived via ART will be children (for a while) but then they will be grown-ups. And of course, the people who will use ART were children some time ago. Many of the donor-conceived who speak the most eloquently are grown-ups, though they are still someone’s children (as are we all). So I’m not exactly where the “think first of the children” thing can take you. If we worry about the health and well-being of those conceived via third-party gametes, shouldn’t we be worried about that over the entire course of their lives, not only over their childhood? If the most difficult periods they experience are after they are 21 (or 18, or whenever childhood ends) does that make it less important?

  5. Julie,

    I readily acknowledge the harm for people who wish to be parents that aren’t. I pose two statements for you to consider.

    1. An adult making the decision to use anonymous ART either keeping one side having a genetic link or no side having a genetic link to the parent is a decision made for both them and for a future adult. The future adult has no choice or voice in the decision. That starts off unequal where their are voices stating the harm of anonymous “donation”.

    2. Even though my parents completely and utterly accept that we are their children for better or worse for life and we ARE their children. For mom, she still mourns the fact that there was no child of them and I have to think dad felt that as well. Knowing my parents and their ability to accept whatever has come their way in life fully embracing the here and now, I cannot believe at the end of the day, that feeling is unique to them alone. In reality if they (or at least mom because we have talked about it) can feel that way half a century later, how many others will still feel the same loss despite being parents to non-gentic linked (or partially linked) children.

    Just some food for thought – not saying “all” will feel that but I would guess that many will and do, but are not open or honest enough to say those words aloud.

    And another harm, perhaps impact would be a better term you could consider is that “I” too grieve that they did not have the ability to combine their genes and reproduce because the child or children would have been amazing and the world lost because of it. I hope you take this in the spirit intended because these two people (mom and dad) come from a long line of great people that made the world better for everyone they came in contact with.

    • Thanks for your comments. I’m not entirely sure I’m clear about your first point. I do see that the people making the decision to use anonymous gamete providers are making a decision for themselves and for any children who will be created and I think that’s important to recognize–probably in the next stage of the analysis? I’m not sure I’d call this a point about equality exactly. It seems to me to be somehow related to power and responsibility, but I’ll mull it over.

      As to the second point–is the idea here that ART isn’t a complete remedy for the harm/impact I’ve described. That’s certainly true and also important to keep in mind. It’s a partial solution, though, right? It allows people like your parents to be parents–though perhaps not parents in the genetic sense.

  6. Julie – I did not answer your specific question although I think I did give food for thought. To answer, Yes, the harm over the entire lifetime must be considered for donor conceived and #1 feeds into the need to listen to what is now being spoken of by the adult donor conceived – they had no voice in the decision.

    I also have to think that my second point above and the impact I also spoke of can be applied to your question as well. Non genetic children don’t necessarily overcome all the harm of childlessness, and the impact on the child (now adult) as well when you have parents who are really good people.

    Human emotions and well being are very messy subjects aren’t they.

    • I think it is the messiness of the human psyche that makes the last few harms much more difficult to work out. The medical harm is somehow more clinical and concrete. The harms that involve feelings/identities and the like are different, I think, and harder to pin down. They also do vary, person to person but also across time/space and culture, potentially.

  7. Thanks for understanding what I was saying – trying to provide additional thought to mull on.

    What if you took the harms that involve feelings and applied a similar but different scenario to the same question.

    The doctor offers a mother a choice of taking or not taking a specific med while pregnant. The med guarantees she would not miscarry and would have the ultimate pregnancy, none of the side effects such as nausea, back ache, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, the easiest labor on earth – the perfect pregnancy.

    The downside was that there was a 50 – 75% chance that her offspring would be sterile – healthy but sterile.

    What would your answer be – should that med be allowed or not?

    • Good question! I think that med should not be allowed, and we should protect everyone’s fertility, because procreation is a human right and we are obligated to protect it.

    • woah. cool question. Not sure what it proves exactly but its a question with an easy solution. She can do whatever she wants like smoke or snort cocaine while pregnant and then when the baby is born she will have to bear the responsibility for taking care of the mess she’s made because, she’s that child’s mother. Unless of course she’s the baby’s gestational carrier in which case she’ll hand the mess over to the mother to deal with or maybe she’ll raise the baby herself as a social parent. So many new options.

    • This is a extremely common scenario. A very common is example is psychiatric medications. Most expectant mothers go off their medications during pregnancy, even those medications with teratogenic/unknown effects far less than fifty percent. They continue to take their medications only in very severe cases. So the answer to your question is that it depends onthe on the severity of the condition.

    • That’s a terrific (and terrible) question. I suppose you mean does the mother get to make this choice or is the choice made for her? I guess I’m generally inclined to say that the mother gets to make this choice because I’m inclined towards individual autonomy, but 1) I’d need to think more about this and 2) I’m not saying what I think the mother should/would choose. Indeed–food for thought. I can sort of see why it’s a good question here, too, even if it’s a little off topic.

  8. How come they didn’t mention this harm when telling kids that it was OK to have premarital sex, be gay, be transgendered, and that women don’ t need men, they can have careers? All of these things lead to unwanted childlessness. I don’t think it is that big a deal, but I’m a guy, I like to stay out late and play in my band and fuck horny drunk chicks, and a wife and kids would cramp my style. But It’s interesting to see that this behavior is now being recognized by feminists as causing an agonizing harm, and maybe we will start to change our policies to protect people’s fertility and maximize their chance at marriage and procreation. Too late for me though, but I ain’t complaining.

  9. Apparently I did not make myself understood.

    In an attempt to take the identity feelings out of the equation on how decisions made by one on behalf of another can cause harm. I tried to come up with another “potential” harm that like Julie had noted: “The medical harm is somehow more clinical and concrete. The harms that involve feelings/identities and the like are different, I think, and harder to pin down. They also do vary, person to person but also across time/space and culture, potentially.”

    My meds question was my attempt to show this using the “get what you want the easiest way possible” but with the added potential harm of causing the “what you want” to feel exactly what you felt, before your decision to get what you want the easiest way possible.

    Incredibly hard to describe and I cannot have coffee this morning.

    My apologies to Julie for taking this off track.

  10. Harm is an injury inflicted by one upon another, whereas childlessness is an affliction not necessarily inflicted. Childlessness, unwanted though it may be, is only a harm if it was inflicted upon them by another person. People can generally take up their grievances with the person who inflicted harm upon them. If we are looking at changing laws to prevent the harm of unwanted childlessness we’d want to change the laws that allowed people to inflict others with the injury of childlessness.

    • Rarely would childlessness be classified as a harm.

    • I don’t agree with your definition of harm. I think you are saying that an experience of pain (physical or pscyhological) is only harm if it is caused by some person? I don’t quite see why you’d have such a restriction and I don’t think it is a commonly applied one.

      If I experience pain, if I hurt, I have suffered harm. It might be due to a disease or a falling meteorite or some cause unknown, but to me it’s still harm. I’m not talking about whose fault it is or anything–just that I’m hurting. (Fault might be important for other reasons–perhaps we’ll come to that?)

      If we have the capacity to ease pain (or to mitigate harm), then we ought to (in my view) think about exercising that capacity no matter what causes the harm. I do understand that we might choose not to exercise that capacity for a thousand different reasons–the cost may be to high or whatever. But as I have said before, this is just the very beginning and I want to identify the harms we should consider.

      And in response to your next comment–being childless is not a source of pain for everyone–some people are quite happy being childless. But it is clear to me that for some people being childless is a source of significant pain and that’s what I mean when I say it is a harm.

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