When Daddy's Name is 'Donor'

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Jun 03, 2010 12:01 AM
When Daddy's Name is 'Donor'

What is it like to be a child conceived using the sperm of a man whom the law says has no obligations to you at all, that you don't even have a right to know his name?

As many as 1 percent of all children born in America are created by reproductive technology, and yet few people have bothered to ask that question.

Until now. Thanks to an extraordinary new report just released by the Institute for American Values, "My Daddy's Name Is Donor," we can now begin to look for answers. The groundbreaking study by Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval Glenn and Karen Clark looks at almost 500 young adults created by donor insemination.

Rush Limbaugh

Forty-five percent of these young adults conceived by donor insemination agree, "The circumstances of my conception bother me." Almost half report that they think about their donor conception a few times a week or more. Forty-five percent agree, "It bothers me that money was exchanged in order to conceive me."

Nearly half of donor offspring (compared to about a fifth of adopted adults) agree, "When I see friends with their biological fathers and mothers, it makes me feel sad." Similarly, 53 percent (compared to 29 percent of adoptees) agree, "It hurts when I hear other people talk about their genealogical background."

Donor offspring were three times as likely as adopted young adults and seven times more likely than adults born to biological parents to agree, "I feel confused about who is a member of my family and who is not." Nearly half of donor offspring were afraid they might unknowlingly commit incest.

Yet the majority of these young adults support donor insemination, provided it is not anonymous. Indeed, a startling 20 percent of the donor-conceived had become donors themselves, perhaps in part to establish a connection with the phantom non-parent.

There are worse things, clearly. But just as clearly, children conceived by reproductive technologies are struggling with the meaning of their origins, and they are struggling largely alone.

On IAV's FamilyScholars.org blog, Olivia Pratten, who is a donor offspring, writes about what it felt like to show up at infertility industry conferences: "I quickly realized I was a black sheep there. Much like my experience with the physician who engineered my conception, people in the infertility industry didn't know what to say to me. The message was clear: I wasn't supposed to be there. I was supposed to be somewhere else with no thoughts or feelings about all of this."

She says, "If knowing your biological roots didn't matter, then genealogy wouldn't exist. ... If knowing your biological roots didn't matter, anthropologists wouldn't have found that varying forms of ancestor worship can be found throughout all cultures throughout time. ... If biology didn't matter, donor anonymity would have never started in the first place."

She's right: The whole billion-dollar fertility industry is predicated on the truth that biological connection matters.

We live in a society that seeks to fragment experience in order to reduce barriers to desire. First we separated sex from marriage, then marriage from reproduction, and then, finally, reproduction from sex.

Biology doesn't matter, we say, because love makes a family. Unless of course you are a woman with a sterile partner, in which case biology means both everything and nothing. Biology is so important for these parents that adoption is not good enough -- only a child of one's own body will do. But the child so created apparently has no right to have similar feelings about biological connection.

Do our bodies matter, and if so, how and why? What do we owe our children, and who counts as our child? Out of the science of reproductive technology and the searching and suffering of the children so created, arise the deepest questions, the ones that naked science can't answer.