The Kids Are All Right, due out in July, is being praised for its honest portrayal of a lesbian couple, played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. But what seems most revelatory about the movie is its portrayal of their two teenage children who track down their sperm donor biological father and insist on forging a connection with him. Finally, we have an exploration of how children born from such procedures feel, because in fact it turns out that their feelings about their origins are a lot more complicated than people think.
Each year an estimated 30,000-60,000 children are born in this country via artificial insemination, but the number is only an educated guess. Neither the fertility industry nor any other entity is required to report on these statistics. The practice is not regulated, and the children’s health and well-being are not tracked. In adoption, prospective parents go through a painstaking, systematic review, including home visits and detailed questions about their relationship, finances, and even their sex life. Any red flags, and a couple might not get the child.
With donor conception, the state requires absolutely none of that. Individual clinics and doctors can decide what kinds of questions they want to ask clients who show up at their door. They don’t conduct home studies. No contacts are interviewed. If clients can pay their medical bills, most clinics could care less about their finances. The effects of such a system on the people conceived this way have been largely unknown.
We set out to change that. We teamed up with professor Norval Glenn of the University of Texas at Austin to design and field a survey with a sample drawn from more than 1 million American households. One of us (Karen Clark) found out at age 18 that she had been conceived through anonymous sperm donation in 1966. The other (Elizabeth Marquardt) has completed studies on topics such as the inner lives of children of divorce and has been profoundly absorbed by the stories of adult donor offspring since she first began hearing them in comments to posts she wrote on the FamilyScholars blog in 2005.
Our study, released by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future last week, focused on how young-adult donor offspring—and comparison samples of young adults who were raised by adoptive or biological parents—make sense of their identities and family experiences, how they approach reproductive technologies more generally, and how they are faring on key outcomes. The study of 18- to 45-year-olds includes 485 who were conceived via sperm donation, 562 adopted as infants, and 563 raised by their biological parents.
The results are surprising. While adoption is often the center of controversy, it turns out that sperm donation raises a host of different but equally complex—and sometimes troubling—issues. Two-thirds of adult donor offspring agree with the statement “My sperm donor is half of who I am.” Nearly half are disturbed that money was involved in their conception. More than half say that when they see someone who resembles them, they wonder if they are related. About two-thirds affirm the right of donor offspring to know the truth about their origins.
Regardless of socioeconomic status, donor offspring are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.
As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families. (And our study found that the adoptees on average are struggling more than those raised by their biological parents.) The donor offspring are more likely than the adopted to have struggled with addiction and delinquency and, similar to the adopted, a significant number have confronted depression or other mental illness. Nearly half of donor offspring, and more than half of adoptees, agree, “It is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child.”
The stories that donor offspring tell about their confusion help to illustrate why they might be, as a group, faring so much worse. Christine Whipp, a British author conceived by anonymous sperm donation more than four decades ago, gives voice to the feelings some donor offspring have of being a “freak of nature” or a “lab experiment”:
My existence owed almost nothing to the serendipitous nature of normal human reproduction, where babies are the natural progression of mutually fulfilling adult relationships, but rather represented a verbal contract, a financial transaction and a cold, clinical harnessing of medical technology.
Lynne Spencer, a nurse and donor-conceived adult, speaks eloquently of losing trust when her parents did not tell her the truth about her origins, and she suspected the secret:
When you grow up and your instincts are telling you one thing and your parents—the people you are supposed to be able to trust the most in your life—are telling you something else, your whole sense of what is true and not true is all confused.
Others speak of the searching for their biological father in crowds, wondering if a man who resembles them could be “the one.” One donor-conceived adult responded to an open-ended question on our survey by writing: “Sometimes I wonder if my father is standing right in front of me.” Still others speak of complicated emotional journeys and lost or damaged relationships with their families when they grow up. One wrote at the end of our survey: “I still have issues with this problem and am seeking professional help. It has helped me to become a stronger person but has scarred me emotionally.” Another said, “[I am] currently not on seeing or speaking terms with family because of this.”
Listening to the stories of donor-conceived adults, you begin to realize there’s really no such thing as a “donor.” Every child has a biological father. To claim otherwise is simply to compound the pain, first as these young people struggle with the original, deliberate loss of their biological father, and second as they do so within a culture that insists some guy who went into a room with a dirty magazine isn’t a father. At most the children are told he’s a “seed provider” or “the nice guy who gave me what I needed to have you” or the “Y Guy” or any number of other cute euphemisms that signal powerfully to children that this man should be of little, if any, importance to them.
What to do? For starters, the United States should follow the lead of Britain, Norway, Sweden, and other nations and end the anonymous trade of sperm. Doing so would powerfully affirm that as a nation we no longer tolerate the creation of two classes of children, one actively denied by the state knowledge of their biological fathers, and the rest who the state believes should have the care and protection of legal fathers, such that the state will even track these men down and dock child support payments from their paychecks.
Getting rid of the secrecy would go a long way toward helping relieve the pain offspring feel. But respondents to our study told us something else too: About half of them have concerns about or serious objections to donor conception itself, even if parents tell their children the truth. Our findings suggest that openness alone does not resolve the complex risks to which children are exposed when they are deliberately conceived not to know and be known by their biological fathers.
At the very least, these young people need acknowledgement of reality as they experience it. Donor offspring may have legal and social parents who take a variety of forms—single, coupled, gay, straight. But they also have, like everyone else, a biological father and mother, two people whose very beings are found in the child’s own body and seen in his or her own image reflected in the mirror.