Monday, May 31, 2010

Something to Think About

Although I have long wondered about the wisdom of anonymous sperm donation, I have never spent much time thinking about the hundreds of thousands of adults who were conceived in this way. This study, from the Commission on Parenthood's Future, is making me think. The study compares 485 adults who were conceived by anonymous sperm donation with adults who were adopted and those raised by their biological parents. The study's authors are associated with the Institute for American Values, a conservative organization, and they have a serious ax to grind. But the study seems fairly well designed, as far as it goes.

In terms of what sociologists call "outcomes," sperm donor children seem similar to adoptive children: they are about twice as likely as children raised by biological parents in the same social class and neighborhood to drop out of high school, be arrested, have substance problems, and all those other indexes of troubled youth, and also about twice as likely to report mental illness as adults.

All of the people in the study of course know that they are children of sperm donors -- otherwise they couldn't be in the study. The study found a major difference between those whose parents were honest and those who found out accidentally. Those whose parents were not honest were more than twice as likely to report mental health problems. The children of single mothers do somewhat worse in all areas than those raised by couples, whether heterosexual or lesbian. There were only 39 children raised by lesbian couples in the study, but they were the best group in terms of those outcomes I mentioned, although still worse than children raised by their biological parents.

This part of the study deals with measurable facts, and I can't see any reason to doubt the findings -- as I said, the results are similar to those for adopted children. I have questions about the other part of the study, which deals with attitudes. Because, see, what happens is that some researcher calls up these people and asks to talk with them about being the offspring of sperm donors, and then asks questions like, "Do you ever wonder what your sperm donor's family is like?" Even if you hardly ever think about this, being asked this question in the context of this interview is going to get you thinking about it. So I think the study could seriously overstate the degree to which the children of sperm donors worry about their status. But, for what it's worth, the authors found that offspring of sperm donors report suffering a lot over their situations. For example,
Nearly half of donor offspring (48%), compared to about a fifth of adopted adults (19%) agree, "When I see friends with their biological fathers and mothers, it makes me feel sad."
Another issue that I confess I never thought about:
Nearly half (46%) of donor offspring, but just 17% of adopted adults and 6% of those raised by their biological parents, agree, "When I am romantically attracted to someone I have worried that we could be unknowingly related."
What's with the 6% of those raise by their biological parents who worry about this? Nut cases.

The offspring of sperm donors seem to have conflicted views about the process. A majority believe that everyone has a right to have children, and a large minority have completely libertarian views about reproduction. But two-thirds think they have a right to find out the identity of their biological fathers, and to try to form a relationship with him. I consider this a bizarre fantasy born from the same part of the brain that writes fairy tales. Lots of adopted children try to seek out their birth parents, but very, very few ever end up forming a decent relationship with them. But it does reflect the confusion felt by these children over who they are and where they came from.

My feelings about this remain conflicted. As Ross Douthat points out in the column that pointed me to the study, couples who want to adopt have to prove themselves worthy in a lengthy and expensive process, but anybody with the money can get donated sperm and eggs and even a surrogate womb mother. I would probably not support legal intervention in the process, but that doesn't mean I think it is a good idea.


Frisky070802 said...

On the Colbert report earlier this month, he did a piece on how Australia was going to require that the donor's name be released when the child reached age 18, and this has caused a sperm shortage. (Colbert made a big deal about them importing sperm from the US, and how he had is own packaging idea.)

The idea of finding out in order to avoid inadvertent liaisons is interesting, something I hadn't thought of.

Someday in the not-too-distant future I can imagine people doing instant DNA tests to check for any potential issues of that sort. Then no names would be required...

John said...

Several countries have banned anonymous sperm donation.