Experts estimate that there could be around one million young people alive in the world today as a result of sperm donation. How are they doing? Elizabeth Marquardt of the Institute for American Values and colleagues have done a unique study based on a large, representative US survey and, in a report published today, tell us that the kids, many of them, are not okay. In this interview with MercatorNet during a recent conference hosted by the Social Trends Institute in Barcelona, she talks about some of her findings.

MercatorNet: Reproductive technologies raise the question, as you have put it, of whether the child is a “gift or commodity” for us now. Historically, was “gift” the predominant way of looking at the child?

Elizabeth Marquardt: In working on my paper it struck me that the religious traditions of the world are very powerful on the idea of the child as a gift but in part because it is an idea that we humans have not always resonated completely with. I think there is a strong human impulse to want to control life and predict what will happen next and to will away suffering and uncertainty, and so the religious injunction that the child is a gift is something of a corrective to the impulse to control life, long before reproductive technology was available.

At the same time it is clear that the experience of a child as a gift for a woman or a couple remains a strong element of becoming a parent, and so I believe that religious traditions today can still offer insights into this experience.

On the other hand I think it’s too easy to say that we only came to treat the child as a commodity in the wake of reproductive technology. The human race has probably long had a tendency to see children not as means in themselves but as means to our ends — as labourers, or as insurance in our old age or for many other purposes. Reproductive technologies have given us a new and more chilling way of seeing the child as commodity.

But it came to me while I was writing that even before in vitro fertilisation and the like, abortion and contraception already treated the child as a commodity, although I don’t come at this as someone who’s thought that way before. I don’t address abortion and contraception in my paper but I know others have.

MercatorNet: Your research is specifically about the grown children of sperm donors. What is new about your study?

Elizabeth Marquardt: Sperm donation has been around for a long time, but people conceived this way have been telling their stories with increasing openness over the past couple of decades. Many of the most articulate, by the way, are in Australia, including some belonging to a group called Tangled Web.

So these voices have been there but the global scope of the donor industry and the secrecy still largely afforded donors have presented serious challenges for researchers. Critics of the vocal minority could say, well, these are people who are just angry for other reasons and they are not really representative. So the studies have not been there of young adults, and what studies there have been mainly involve young children and rely more on their mothers’ reports about them.

My colleagues and I decided to put together a study based on an online panel of over one million US households that had signed up to receive surveys on various things. From this large population we were able to assemble samples of three groups of people: donor conceived adults between the ages of 18 and 45, a comparison group of similar-aged people adopted as infants, and a group who were raised by their biological parents — with over 500 people in each group. So our study was unique in being large, representative and allowing for comparison with other groups.

In our survey we looked at identity, kinships, social justice and wellbeing. And, in summary, we found that donor conceived adults compared to those adopted or conceived by their own parents are hurting more, are more confused, are more isolated from their families when they grow up, and on several key measures they are doing less well than those raised by biological parents and adoptive parents.

MercatorNet: What are the issues for them?

Elizabeth Marquardt: For a start they told us, “My sperm donor is half of who I am”. They say, “I look at me in the mirror and half of me is a blank, I don’t know where half of me comes from and that loss matters to me.” It hurts, especially as others around them do not see it as a loss, and, if anything, think the donor offspring who see it as a loss are complaining. Everyone has pain, but what makes it especially painful is that others don’t recognise it or dismiss it.

They are saying, in effect: “That sperm donor is my biological father and the identity of that person and the possibility of being in a relationship with that person does matter to me. And I’m living in a society where people seem to think this loss is just fine, and doctors and lawyers are helping more and more people to be born this way. And that hurts.”

In the area of kinship or family, they are much more likely that those who are adopted to say that seeing friends with their biological mothers and fathers makes them want to know more about their ethnic background, their sperm donor’s family, their half siblings. They are very concerned about accidental incest — which is something that most people in the public debate haven’t realised at all, they haven’t faced what it might mean to have 25 or 50 or 100 or more half siblings who live near you.

MercatorNet: Does it make it better for them that they are “wanted” children?

Elizabeth Marquardt: That’s been the reassuring theme all along, of course. Those who defend the practice, the industry, will say, Well, these kids are 100 per cent wanted. There are no accidents among them. Their mothers, especially, but probably also others, wanted them to be here so why should we be concerned about them?

I was thinking about this in writing my paper and the fact that we have three groups — those raised by biological and adoptive parents — many of whom were probably the result of unplanned pregnancies — and yet we have these sperm donor offspring who were 100 per cent planned and wanted, so do we find they are doing better than the other two groups? No, we find that, on average, they are faring far worse.

And so it raises the question whether a society should orient its policy goals around having wanted children or intended children and whether that matters as much as we make out it does. Whether it matters more than what comes after the child is born: the structure in which child is raised; whether the father-child bond protected, the mother-child bond protected. Whether this thing called marriage, which helps to keep mothers and fathers together, is in place.

And the study also points to the fact that adoption is different from donor conception and adoption does appear to protect children better than reproductive technologies.

MercatorNet: And why do you think that is?

Elizabeth Marquardt: I think because adoption is an institution and donor conception is a market. In adoption we find an array or norms and laws developed over a long time In the US there has been at least a hundred years of professional adoption practice that seeks to protect the best interests of the child, although there is a debate around that concept currently.

In contrast, donor conception is a market designed to procure a child for the parents who want them. And money is traded — it can be in adoption, too, in way that reeks of baby selling and that is severely prohibited — but donor conception is baby selling; that’s what it is by nature. They sell the parts to make babies. And the impact on the children is different; they know about that — about 40 per cent of those in our survey said that it bothered them that money was exchanged

Furthermore, an adopted child knows that their biological parents actually met and knew one another — in the biblical sense and perhaps also in other senses — while those who are donor conceived grapple with the notion that their parents literally never met. About 10 per cent say they feel like a freak of nature or a lab experiment.

MercatorNet: What about the idea that they are “made, not born”?

Elizabeth Marquardt: This is one of themes that comes through — people’s sense that they are a product made to suit their mother’s wishes rather than a natural happening. In the normal course of events parents have some control about whether you are born, especially today, but reproductive technology has brought that to a new level of control.

The questions these donor conceived young adults grapple with speak to what it means when children are not seen as gifts from beyond to the world but exist because they were birthed through the will of their mothers. The human will of one person, your mother, is the reason why you exist. She could have easily aborted you, chosen not to have you, but she did, so, you made it, barely; you slipped though. Rather than the idea that we are all here because of some surging life force more powerful than anyone can understand and that some people call God.

MercatorNet: Which puts us all on an equal footing.

Elizabeth Marquardt: Exactly.

Elizabeth Marquardt is Vice President for Family Studies and Director of the Centre for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values in New York City. Her new report, My Daddy’s Name is Donor, is published today.

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