Orphaned at Conception

Michael Cook
01 June 2010
Reproduced with Permission

A 51-year-old Michigan man may have fathered as many as 400 children by donating sperm to an IVF clinic between 1980 and 1994. At the time Kirk Maxey saw this as a way to pay his way through medical school and to help infertile women. "You would get a personal phone call from a nurse saying, 'The situation is urgent! We have a woman ovulating this morning. Can you be here in a half hour?'," he told Newsweek last year.

Today Mr Maxey deeply regrets his experience, but little has changed since then. More and more babies are being born through sperm donation. In the US, it could be as many as 30,000 and 60,000 children each year. No one really knows. Neither the IVF clinics nor US government departments are required to report these vital statistics.

The United States alone has a fertility industry that brings in US$3.3 billion annually. "Fertility tourism" has taken off as a booming global trade. Some nations, like Cyprus, the Ukraine or India, bill themselves as destinations for couples who wish to circumvent stricter laws and greater expense in their own countries in order to become pregnant with reproductive technologies. The largest sperm bank in the world, Cryos, is in Denmark and ships three-quarters of its sperm overseas.

This disconnect between procreation and fatherhood is unprecedented in human history. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have entered the world as genetic orphans. How do they feel about it?

Incredibly, there is almost no reliable evidence, anywhere, about this. Last year an academic study in the British journal Human Reproduction lamented that "Despite the prevalence of donor conception across the world, relatively little is known about the offspring who result from this method of assisted conception."

That's why My Daddy's Name is Donor, a report released this week by the Commission on Parenthood's Future should be welcomed. It is one of the first efforts to learn about the identity, kinship, well-being, and social justice experiences of young adults who were conceived through sperm donation. About 500 American adults between 18 and 45 years old who said their mother used a sperm donor to conceive them were interviewed for the project, along with a similar number of young adults who were adopted and who were raised by their biological parents. It's difficult to get information like this - partly because so many people are unaware of their origins. The British researchers only interviewed 165 donor-conceived people and did not compare them to other groups.

Reports in the media and even some academic research give the impression that children conceived through sperm donation are at ease with their origins. But according to My Daddy's Name is Donor, on average, young adults conceived through sperm donation are hurting more, are more confused, and feel more isolated from their families. They fare worse than their peers raised by biological parents on important outcomes such as depression, delinquency and substance abuse. Nearly two-thirds agree, "My sperm donor is half of who I am."

Nearly half are disturbed that money was involved in their conception. One donor-conceived woman wrote: "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."

And another: "It is completely unnatural, my Father was likely to be a 20-ish year old Med Student, My Mother was a 36 year old Woman very unlikely to have met this type of person. It makes me feel like some kind of Hybrid or Cuckoo!"

Because it is a contract, donors can maximize their income by donating over and over. With the advent of big business sperm banking, one man can "donate" his sperm many times. Since a lot of women seem to have a certain type of donor father in mind (tall, blue-eyed, blonde; smart, sensitive, athletic), sperm banks typically have some high demand donors. His bodily fluids are poured into vials and sold to women all over the country. Mr Maxey is no exception. Reports of one donor fathering dozens or even over a hundred offspring are widespread in the US and abroad.

So donor offspring not only have to deal with the loss of a biological father. They also have to struggle with the astounding implications of what happens when reproduction is fully disconnected from sex, when social mores that seek, as much as possible, to restrict men to reproducing with one, or at least not more than a few, women are thrown out and anything goes.

When donor-conceived people discover their true origins, they also learn that they might well have a half-dozen, or a dozen, or scores, or hundreds, of half-siblings - all over the place. Their brothers and sisters might live on the other side of the country or the other side of the world. They might live in the same town. They might live next door. They have no idea. It can be a nightmare.

Donor conception is basically just high-tech adoption, say its defenders. The authors of the report disagree. Adoption is a vital, pro-child institution, a means by which the state rigorously screens and assigns legal parents to already-born (or at least, already conceived) children who urgently need loving, stable homes. In adoption, prospective parents go through a painstaking, systematic review.

In fact, the process is so intrusive that it may feel humiliating. There are home studies. Questions about your finances. Your sex life. Your contacts are interviewed. With every question the possibility hangs in the balance that you might very well not get a child. It is a tough process with one straightforward goal in mind: protecting the best interests of the child.

With donor conception in the US, the government requires none of that. Individual clinics and doctors decide what questions they want to ask clients. They don't conduct home studies. No contacts are interviewed. If you can pay your medical bills, they couldn't care less about your finances. Is the relationship in which you plan to raise the child stable? Just say it is, and they believe you. Or do you plan to raise the child alone? Most clinics now say that's fine, too. The end result is the same as adoption: a child relinquished by at least one biological parent. But compared to adoption, the process could not be more lax.

Secrecy is another major issue. The British researchers found that few parents have the gumption to tell children how they were conceived. In 1996 a study of 111 European families with sperm-donor children aged 4 to 8 found that none of them had been told. As the children grow up, some learn from their parents; others learn from gossiping relatives or friends.

It's tough for parents to live with a lie and tougher for children to discover the lie. In the poignant words of one woman, "They say eAs long as you love the child enough and want them badly enough, the truth really won't matter.' But, we're all here to tell you that the truth does matter. Living as a family with a terrible secret robs the family. It's a terrible, terrible thing to have happen. This rottenness just gets worse over the years."

In some countries, like the UK, this problem has been "solved" by requiring men to be willing to be contacted by offspring, usually after their turn 18. But, of course, parents are not required to tell children. And as the report asks, is secrecy the main problem or is it donor conception itself?

A British man, Tom Ellis, wrote a couple of years ago in The Independent:

I have done a Master's degree at Cambridge and am reasonably successful, but it doesn't make me feel any better about not knowing who I am. There is a saying that there are two lasting bequests we can give our children: one is roots and the other is wings. I think donor-conception denies a child both of these. I feel like a tree that has half of its roots missing. And without them, I can hardly stand up.

Sperm donation may seem like a practical solution for single women, infertile couples or lesbians who dream of cuddling their own baby. But almost no one seems to care that the baby may never fulfil its dream of having a biological father. Why do adults have a right to a child, while a child has no right to a father? We've all read heart-rending reports about children stolen by bureaucrats from aboriginal parents or single mothers or poor couples. Why can't we see the injustice of robbing children of fathers from the moment of conception?