Sunday, September 1, 2019

Donor Related Networks

Fascinating review by Michael Pridmore-Brown in the TLS for April 5, 2019 of two books about children and families created by sperm donation. Most of the women who do this are single professionals who carefully peruse the catalogs and choose a donor with exactly the right characteristics:
Hertz and Nelson call this "buying the advantage the donor offered." One sixteen-year-old girl they interviewed was presciently aware of what this meant: "you could pick traits that you wanted in your progeny." She is aware that her mother gamed the conventional system, and tells the authors, "I'm glad I lived up to that choice. . . . Like reading books, and being athletic, and smart and stuff." In Hertz and Nelson's words, she feels like a "return on her parent's investment." Another girl also cited her intelligence, a trait she knew appealed to her single mother, who, proud of her choice, had repeatedly told her "That's from your donor. Not from me." Their mothers are typically open about the donor, and so the children assume traits they don't share with their mothers or the mother's relations come from him. The authors note that during periods of adolescent alienation, the figure of the donor can operate in predictable ways – he is likely to be fetishized once again, this time by the teenager. A precocious eighteen-year-old notes that her donor is like Schrödinger's cat: he exists "in the superposition of all these possibilities." Inventing him is about inventing oneself.
Especially interesting to me are the pseudo-families who have sprung up among children who share the same sperm donor father and their mothers; sociologists call these "donor related networks."
The authors spend far more time describing the evolution of a denser, younger and probably more representative network. Here, the children met for the first time in 2012, when they were 12 to 15 years old, a perfect age, as one of them puts it, for a kind of radical openness to the novelty of "building" family. The authors call them "the 7008 Builders." What they have in common: their mothers chose non-identity-release donor #7008 because they didn't want a donor to intrude into their lives. The mothers do, however, want to give their children the option of interaction with donor siblings – in case this "somehow" proves to be in their interest. Nine children take part in an original gathering in the centrally located Kansas City, and with a couple of extrovert girls at their center, they come to profess undying love. The mothers marvel at how safe the children feel around one another; the children marvel at their "freakish" traits in common (same dark hair, same chin; in some cases, an interest in science, like the donor). They fantasize collectively about "him," creating rituals of belonging – for instance, around listening to a tape of his voice. They authors make this network sound idyllic in a summer camps sort of way, full of exuberant bonhomie. Until it's not.

Eighteen months later, the children are in their mid-teens or more, and the network has succumbed to the other side of choice: exclusion. New members have joined. Eventually there will be twenty. Some of the original nine report being ghosted. Dyads and triads of like-minded types have formed. An excluded homeschooler, Zoe from Tennessee, confirms that the dynamics of "choice" now prevail and she is not chosen. Others confirm that she is not "cool." . . .
Ah, youth.

And then this:
With Hertz and Nelson's final and youngest network, competitive values and benefits are to the fore. The mothers are savvy consumers – they have undoubtedly perused hundreds, perhaps thousands, of profiles. They know what they want, and the children, who are only toddlers, have not yet muddled their agenda. The network consists of fourteen families who all signed up early for the donor sibling registry, not wanting their children to be left out. It's this network that coined a term for donor siblings, "diblings," which has since spread to the larger community. Describing their donor as exceptionally "nice" and "available" – and the source of the "best genes" they could find, the mothers talk about wanting to affiliate with others who displayed the same discernment in choosing him. While they did want a donor who was available to answer their children's questions, he is otherwise seen simply as a source of genes. The lateral relationships are the ones viewed as sources of social and cultural capital. They aim to turn diversity – socio-economic, cultural,or geographic, as well as gender or structural differences in family composition – into a feature, not a bug, of this type of reproduction. The geographic benefit is clear: "My child will have a place to stay when she's in Chicago." . . . She can crash on her dibling's couch. Or maybe get an internship through a dibling parent. . . .

A mother remarks that all who chose the donor are "similarly kind and open-hearted people. It's just really interesting how similar we are . . . How cool is that?" This is the sensibility part – the desire to affiliate with and create children who display curiosity and openness. At the same time, one mother emphasized the "sense" part: "I hope my daughter will say these connections will deepen her Rolodex."
Actually her daughter won't even know what a Rolodex is – I just asked the closest one of my children, and he had no idea. But anyway I am fascinated by the ways these new kinds of families replicate and alter old human patterns.

The book cited in these passages is Rosanna Hertz and Margaret K. Nelson, Random Families: Genetic strangers, sperm donor siblings, and the creation of new kin. Oxford University Press 2018


Anonymous said...

Strange to hear boutique eugenicists describe themselves as open-hearted and kind.

G. Verloren said...


Hear, hear.

Reading this gave me chills, in large part due to the blatant fetishization of the "donors" and shared genetic materials.

David said...

One of the most depressing things I've read in a long time. We're not a very nice species.

JEL said...

Disturbingly strange, I agree. A symptom of a longing for authentic connection in a world where it is hard to find, and overwhelmed by the inauthentic connection created by gadgets?