Adoption Study: Some Notes on Differences (Part 1)

A few days ago I linked to a recent (and really interesting) study on openness in adoption.   Apart from its interest to those who care about adoption, I think the study should also be interesting to those who think about ART using third-party gametes.   At the time I said that when I thought about adoption and use of third party gametes in ART I saw both sameness and difference.   It’s important to articulate both the sameness and the difference in order to figure out which aspects of the study are transferable or how they might be transferable.

So in my last post I started to think about the sameness.   If you look through the comments you’ll see that differences arose as well.   I want to take some of those differences and put them up here in a post.   This is by no means and exhaustive list–or at least, I don’t think it is.

For starters it seems to me that you can look at these issues from a variety of perspectives:   You can take the view of an adopted or donor conceived child, you can take the view of the parent of an adoptive or donor conceived child,  or you can take the view of the birth parents or gamete providers.   I think it is even possible to take the view of society generally–the concerned citizen perspective.   No one of these viewpoints is more valid than any other.  Each adds insight and ought, it seems to me, to be considered.   (I have some regret that I didn’t do this before I did the sameness post, but I can always go back and run that through this framework.)

One more caveat–as I note differences that strike me, I don’t mean to suggest that every one of these differences will be important to every person in whatever group I’m thinking about.   I just mean to identify differences that I think will matter to some people and hence, bear thinking about.   YMMV.

The child’s perspective.   I’m going to assume awareness of status here.   There’s an important sameness in that both children can be deceived about their origins.  I cannot recall if I listed that, but it is noteworthy.  I’m just not going to develop it right here.

That said, the adopted child and the donor conceived child both know that there is a person out there (or two people) who are genetically connected to them.  In both cases the person or people chose (yes, that’s an assumption, but I’m going with it for now) to enter the arrangement.   Those are key samenesses which I need to pass over if I’m going on to differences here.

I think it quite possible that the child thinking about the choice made in each instance would confront different issues.  The adoptive child knows that there is a woman out there who not only is genetically connected to the child, but also was pregnant and gave birth.   The absence of that person–the inability of the child to hear stories about “when I was in mommy’s tummy”–seems to me to be important.  And that’s not an issue for a donor-conceived child.

The adopted child also has to accept that for some reason the woman who gave birth decided to give the child up.   I’ve seen plenty of movies and read lots of fiction that dramatize this fraught scene.   An adopted child might well think about what that was like–what both infant and mother (the woman who gave birth) go through at that point.

I’d say this is qualitatively different from thinking about a woman providing an egg.   Whatever I envision, I do not see that dramatic scene with the anguished young mother that is the staple of TV drama.   The child born from a third-party egg must work a different story into her or his life.  (I would assume that it is often a story of someone who didn’t think the egg mattered that much at the time she offered it up, but I’m happy to be enlightened.)

I think this difference could be important to how children who are adopted and donor conceived understand themselves and understand the choices that lead to the absence of the person with the genetic connection.  I will repeat–I am not saying it will always matter to everyone.  And I make no pretense of saying what the difference in outcome will be.   All I want to say is that it seems likely to me that it does matter in some significant number of instances.

Clearly I’m not going to anyone else’s viewpoint in this post–reaching the limit now.  But let me at least flag the lurking (or obvious?) gender issue:   The contrast between egg donor and birth mother is different than the contrast between sperm donor and birth father.   I’m not sure what to make of that–so I leave it for another time.


29 responses to “Adoption Study: Some Notes on Differences (Part 1)

  1. Egg donation is different from adoption in these very tangible ways which you described well. There are two separable physical aspects of motherhood – supplying the egg and carrying the baby – that don’t exist in fatherhood.

    No one who has given birth to a tiny, helpless being who cries and wails until she hears her mother’s voice and is taken in her mother’s arms can deny that adoptees lose something immensely different from the donor conceived. That basic, fundamental connection to the only person whose voice and heartbeat you know and who makes you feel safe and loved.

    As you noted, when it comes to the father, adoption is not too different from sperm donation. In fact, the father of the adoptee perhaps doesn’t even have to know he’s a father, while the sperm donor knows he’s creating a child, which can allow some of us DC to think of our mothers’ donors as our fathers.

    • The last point you make–about intent–is something I really want to explore (perhaps in what I am now thinking of as the fabled next post in this series.) A person who agrees to provides gametes for ART knows that a child will be created and is agreeing to do that with whatever degree of involvment is specifice–often none at all. It’s all intentional. A person giving a child up for adoption is agreeing to do that (one hopes), she (and if there is a he involved he) did not create the pregnancy with the idea of giving the child up. So there is a different intention, or perhaps it is better to say that the intention is formed at a different stage in the process.

      I think your description of the tiny helpless being is really important. For whatever reason, I think the process of being pregnant/giving birth has been given short shrift here. (I think it’s related to focussing a great deal on DNA which isn’t about the pregnancy process.) It’s good to have a reminder of what an extraordinary process it is.

  2. I have given birth to a tiny helpless little baby. I became her mother when she was born, not before. Which would tie nicely to what Julie believes, except I am her mother not because I gave birth to her but because she is my descendant, I made her. Don’t discount the experience of a child whose mother donated her egg…she should be every bit as important to her as had she given birth to her because its the born person that is her child, not the embryo she did not carry.

    Why should one offspring matter more to her than another once they are here on earth? If not carrying her offspring makes them less important to her and she chose not to carry one of them on purpose knowing that it would make one of them less important to her then how should that child feel about that? I’ve given birth and I know my connection to her is because I created her and because I care for her as a living person, not because I carried her. Those were 9 unpleasant months without the benefit of her effervescent personality to temper my general discomfort. Nothing about pregnancy prepares a woman for motherhood. I was just as prepared for what she had in store for us as my husband was. Which is to say I knew nothing about how she’d change everything.

    You know what adoptees do when they find their mothers? Go looking for their fathers. Which ever one is missing is important. They look for Mom first because typically they can’t find him until they find her anyway.

    I guess I don’t believe in that primal wound stuff stemming from pregnancy I think it stems from descendancy. You cannot understand a thing if you do not know its origin.

    • I don’t discount the experience of the woman who produces the egg but it is a qualitatively different experience from that of the woman who is pregnant and gives birth. I think it is fair to assign different meanings to the two experiences–which we both actually do. Where we differ is that I give greater weight to the pregnancy experience and you give greater weight to the egg providing experience, I think.

      I’ll also quibble about whether the egg producer “makes” the baby. The egg (assuming it is fertilized) will divide a few times and then just sit there unless some woman is good enough to allow it to be transferred to her uterus. It is she who provides all the sustance for the growing fetus. Her behavior shapes its environment and, if we are to believe orgins science, shapes its destiny. (This is clearly true in some ways.) So I would say that she–the woman who was pregnant–made that child more than anyone else did.

      But more than that, I think the question of who “made” the child is beside the point. A child is not a manufactured good. (Come to think of it, even if it were, that wouldn’t tell us anything. People (think autoworkers for instance) make things all the time that they do not own. Creating something does not necessarily bring ownership rights in our economic system.) The reason you get to be a legal parent is that you own the child, though we do say “the child is mine.” I think going down the route of asking “who made the child?” is not useful, and that’s assuming we could answer the question.

      I’d actually really like to see studies of adopted children and their searches for birth parents–particularly the discussion of gender–of searching for mother vs. searching for father. Do you know of any?

      • I don’t know of any studies, but there are a gazillion adoptee blogs out there – I haven’t read a single one where the adoptee isn’t interested in both parents, not just the mother.

        • I’ve probably had less exposure to the than you have, but I take your word on this. Still, I wonder if that’s a skewed sample–there must be (I’m only guessing) adoptees who don’t look for either parent and they won’t show up in the blogosphere at all. Perhaps I’m wrong to put faith in the social sciences, but I figure there must be some studies out there. It’s such a nice gendered topic for a PhD thesis, you know?

          • Certainly. IRL I personally know an adoptee who wants nothing to do at all with “those #%& $+*# who abandoned him” – but, again, both of them equally.

            It would be an interesting study.

            I’m certain adoptee blogs are a skewed sample, as people who don’t have anything to express on the issue don’t write blogs, but this should also be taken into consideration: many authors of adoptee blogs admit they don’t talk openly about this IRL. Any adoptee one meets IRL who seems just fine might potentially be blogging anonymously.

            I know I do this. I have a family and a career. I am very careful about what I reveal to people about my strong desire to know who my real father is. I don’t want to be seen as maladjusted or angsty. Even out here, in this identity, I’m usually at least a bit guarded: I don’t normally say “my real father” – but this is how I feel.

            Exposing strong emotions makes you vulnerable and subject to judgement. I’ve actually already been shouted at by FRIENDS and FAMILY that my “REAL father is the man who RAISED” me and that I should just forget about the donor – especially as I probably won’t find him and thus it’s better to suppress the desire to know him, or I’ll suffer. I did this at first – I tried not to focus on the donor and accept the idea that I’ll ever know my biological father and that this fact is what I’ll have to base my identity upon. But then I actually grew stronger psychologically and was able to allow myself to feel grief about it. And it’s real grief.

            One thing I’ve noticed is that feelings really change depending on age, maturity, self-esteem, and emotional independence from adoptive parents. Any study should have a sample of adoptees who are at least 30 years old, should ideally have children of their own, and should ideally have moved at least a street away from home. And should be guaranteed anonymity and asked questions in a very non-judgmental way by people who don’t know them or their adoptive parents.

            • “IRL” is “in real life,” right? (Just making sure I’ve got the language down.)

              I’m only going to pick up on your last point–about feelings changing over time. I suppose I’m carrying this off in a different direction, but it seems to open an important and large topic.

              I touched on this once or twice, I think, when I wrote about regret, but it’s a really important point that deserves more consideration. There’s no question that our feelings about things change as we age. It seems to me that it must be quite common for feelings about all things related to child-bearing, etc. change dramatically over time. A colleague of mine once spoke about how she’d feel if her 22 year old son decided to be a sperm donor. It’s his decision, of cousre. But would he understand that it might look really different when he’s thirty-five and having kids he’ll raise? I think it unlikley.

              At the same time, I hate the idea that the possibility of regret disqualifies us from making decisions when we are young adults. Among other things this gets used against women vis-a-vis abortion all the time. I think all you can do is make the best decisions you can at the time you make them.

              But I wandered from your point. I agree about adoption studies. I’m not familiar with the studies that are out there, but I would hope that many (most?) do the things you suggest, though I suppose they may include a wide range of ages.

              • Yes, IRL is “in real life” 🙂

                I’m not trying to disqualify young adults from making decisions, just to point out that feelings about our parents’ decisions that affect us – especially those that they were very emotionally invested in and insecure about – take some time and freedom and distance to really develop in an autonomous way. Conditioning by parents is a powerful thing.

                • I didn’t mean to suggest that you were trying to disqualify anyone from decision-making. I’m just sort of generally perplexed about what to do about young adults. As I grow older it becomes more clear to me that age really does bring a different sort of thinking–one might call it wisdom, but that’s obviously a postive spin on it.

                  I think what this means is that I make different decisions now than I would have made twenty/thirty years ago. I value things differently. Surely having my own children (whatever that means–I’m not genetically related to them) has made me think totally differently about parenthood and the whole parent/child thing. I don’t think this is very unusual either. Anyway, it’s all well and good to have this understanding, but I don’t really see what I should do with it. I don’t want to say the young cannot make these decisions because they don’t understand. I do think there’s a chance they’ll regret whatever decisions they do make. And maybe this is all just the nature of life and of aging.

                  For me your comments emphasize a slightly different point–one that has come up before but can always be reemphasized. When you make decisions about how/when to have children (assuming you do have them) you are making decisions that will profoundly effect someone else–someone who isn’t here now, someone who cannot have any voice. Once you do have children it’s more obvious that your decisions will effect them but still, that’s a huge challenge of parenting. No easy answers here, though, just attention to the problem.

                  • This is a personal comment now, not an argument of any sort: if you’re as open to your children’s opinions as you are to ours (I’ve noticed zero censorship and plenty of respectful and thought-out and gentle answers to every comment) I think you’re probably doing a good job with them. And they may not need to run halfway across the world from you or turn 95 for an autonomous feeling or opinion form in them.

                  • Here’s hoping it works for them. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

      • I don’t know of any. I feel like I have a good amount of experience in that area but then I get embarrassed and shy about it because I’m not a professional and I don’t really know what I am doing. I’ve personally encountered people who look for their mothers then, if they know where she is they’ll look for their father’s. It appears to be a “first thing’s first” I will admit, the mother is first it seems. However I have frequently found the father before the mother and the person is very happy and then looks for their mother later. Lots of as fathers easily as many fathers as mothers search but not as many as the sum total of all other relatives combined. I have helped quite a few fathers locate their children and they were happy, none of them had already found their mothers and I offered to help with that if they wanted. We found them pretty quickly since the father had info on them.

        All that was like “blah-blah” huh? I don’t know of any studies.

      • Oh Ok could the woman who allows the embryo to be implanted in her body have produced that very child on her own? What is she doing them she is developing another person’s offspring. She did not make the person she developed the person.

        • I’m not sure I understand the import of the first question–could she have had the child without the third-party egg? Let’s assume not, for the sake of this discussion. That just circles us back to our starting point. The egg provider did contribute something essential–I see that. But my question (repeatedly) is does that make her a parent? You say yes, I say no and there we are.

          I have to think about the idea that the woman who is pregnant developes the person. (It sounds a bit like film, you know?) I’m not sure what using that word gets us. Perhaps you’d agree that she, too (the pregnant woman) is contributing something essential. Without her, no child. Of course, you can say anyone could be pregnant (think surrogacy) but I could just as well say anyone contribute the egg. So I am not sure that gets us anywhere different either. This particular child owes its existence to at least three people–sperm provider, egg provider and the woman who was pregnant and gave birth. The question I want to focus on (almost all the time) is who ends up with what kinds of legal recognition.

      • “I don’t discount the experience of the woman who produces the egg but it is a qualitatively different experience from that of the woman who is pregnant and gives birth. I think it is fair to assign different meanings to the two experiences–which we both actually do. Where we differ is that I give greater weight to the pregnancy experience and you give greater weight to the egg providing experience, I think.”

        See your focused on the “experience” of the women, rather than the condition of the child. I’m concerned about the rights of the child upon their arrival into this world based upon their sameness to every other child and here you are focused on the experiences of the adults in the situation.

        • It is certainly true that in this comment I have focused on the experience of the women and I think it is important to do that. This isn’t to say that one should ignore the pov of the child, and I’ve tried to incorporate that other places. You cannot (or I cannot) do it all everywhere. (I actually like taking things apart, though I think you are not so happy when I do that?)

          The experience of a child who is born to a woman to whom she/he is not genetically related is different from that of a child born to a woman to whom she/he is genetically related. It is also different from that of a child who is adopted by a woman who did not give birth to her and is not genetically related.

  3. If a person has to get permission to be a parent, they don’t have the level of authority necessary to be calling themselves that.

    • I have to think about this one. It seems to me that adoptive parents will always need permission because they (by definition) have to go through the process of adoption which is itself the process of getting permission. But apart from that we can make rules that require or do not require people to get permission. So for example, you could have rules that people using ART have to get permission or you could have rules that they do not need permission. (The latter is currently the case in the US.) Similarly you could have rules (they’d be harder to arrange) that people had to get permission to have even a biologically related child. Or a child conceived by intercourse. (China has sort of done that with the one child rule, I guess?)

      I suppose I agree that it is true that the person who must get permission doesn’t have authority to do the thing without permission. But I’m not sure what that adds here.

  4. Not discounting the experience of the “carrying mother”-baby unit does not mean anyone is discounting the experience of the “egg mother”-her offspring unit. Both are important and I don’t think it’s fair to the child to separate the two biological functions of motherhood in this way. For that reason, I believe surrogacy is a horrible practice. No study here either, but there is at least one blog by a person whose parents used a surrogate mother and who is thus genetically the offspring of them both, but who has serious abandonment issues – much like an adoptee whose mother gave him up after birth. I do believe adoptees lose more than egg donor offspring because they lose it all at once – the DNA mother and father AND the mother whose body they know and need to feel secure. Egg donor offspring lose the one and surrogacy offspring lose the other, adoptees lose both “mothers” at once.

    • Either Julie’s blockin or I’ve forgotten how to post – please check out the ASRM website for info on what makes a biological mother and father. Its shared biology not taking care of a fetus with your biology. Also “Son of a Surrogate” is written by the offspring of a woman who gave her genetic child up – not a gestational carrier.

      I am a fan of your blog by the way

      • must have forgotten how to post sorry Julie. Did not mean to imply anything….

      • Thank you, marilynn.

        Thanks for the input – I agree the genetic mother is incontestable. I guess I see a child who loses any person who exclusively nurtures him for a long time when he’s very young as someone suffering a terrible loss, even when there’s no shared DNA. An adoptee who is cared by an adoptive mother for, say, 9 months, only to be “re-relinquished” or whatnot suffers another horrible loss, one more than a “regular” adoptee.

        • Yes! The emotional attachment a person has to the people who care for them is deeper than the emotional attachment to someone they never met however the intrinsic right of dependency upon the person that created you is so fundamental – that to interfere with that connection in any way is violent. Of course the child expects to look to its creator and if they are not there they have been wronged. Its more d
          When someone is donor offspring or they are adopted they are not being allowed to simply be the child of the people who created them – its not allowed and frequently they must take on the identity of the people who took over for the estranged parent. Their own identity is repressed in order to serve whomever it is that won the chance to raise them. Its like being born with a job to do only you don’t get to go home at night and kick off your shoes.

          • Okay–the first part here I agree with–the emotional attachment is important. You could say my main quest in a lot of this blog is to defend the importance of those emotional attachments and to insist that the law recognize and protect them.

            But then, no suprise, we deserve. You say “Of course the child expects to look to its creator.” I’m not sure I agree. Perhaps it depends on what age child and what you mean by creator. I’m not sure what expectations a newborn has and I certainly don’t think a newborn has any expectations vis-a-vis the providers of genetic materials. If that’s where this was going, then we part company. But maybe it wasn’t.

    • Yet there are also people with wonderful experiences of surrogacy–experiences that benefitted all involved. I wonder about what makes it work well sometimes and not others. You can see that there’s an incredible range of variation in how it is practiced. In India there are reports of something akin to baby farms. This hardly seems like a good idea. But there are also instances where there are strong and respectful relationships formed between the parties–relationships that last into the child’s life. That’s a quite different situation.

      What I’ve read is that the primary determinant of success in surrogacy–by which I mean the win/win/win situation–is the relationship between the surrogate and the intending parents. If that’s sound and respectful, then things will generally be good. if this is so, then it makes me wonder how we might nurture those relationships at discourage or even prohibit the ones likely to founder.

  5. To say that foster children who change foster homes once a month lose more than adoptees who were placed at birth with responsible and responsive adopters does not discount the loss that adoptees have.

  6. I used a convoluted double negative (I haven’t read a single one where the adoptee isn’t interested in both parents) where I should have just said “All adoptees whose blogs I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot – want to meet BOTH parents. Not just the mother.” There are many links to adoptee blogs at Amanda’s awesome blog, The Declassified Adoptee. iAdoptee is one blog whose author first reunited with her father.

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