Saturday, September 05, 2015

Better Off Without a Father? Sperm Donation, Honesty, and Family Design

The conservative right-wing often express concerns about children growing up in lesbian or single mother families - that is, children growing up without a father. They generally seem to think that heterosexual couple-headed families are the best kind, and kids in any other kind of family are at psychological risk.

Ironically, however, in one segment of the population, having a father in the home may be a disadvantage. No, I'm not talking about kids with abusive fathers - that's too obvious. I'm talking about kids conceived using donor sperm.

There are three main kinds of families who use donor insemination - there are lesbian couples, there are single mothers by choice, and there are heterosexual couples dealing with male infertility or genetic disorders.

Research into children raised apart from one or both biological parents, for whatever reason (adoption, sperm/egg donation, etc), consistently shows that those who were told early and often about their origins fare much better than those who found out later in life. It hurts to be lied to, especially by the people you trust most.

A preschooler has no preconceptions about how a family should be formed - if you tell them that you found them in an orphanage or went to a doctor to get 'special baby-making juice' from another man because Daddy's special juice didn't work, they'll just accept it as another part of this weird wide world they're discovering. As they grow, their understanding will deepen, but their basic reaction will stay the same. But if you don't tell them, as they grow older, they'll gradually figure out where babies usually come from, and if they're being raised by a heterosexual couple, they'll make a very natural assumption. They'll base their identity off of that assumption, looking for their parents' traits in themselves. And then, to find out that that assumption was wrong can be devastating.

Unfortunately, many heterosexual couples who use sperm donation haven't gotten that message. In this study, they surveyed adolescent and adult donor sperm offspring who were members of the Donor Sibling Registry, an organization for the offspring from donor sperm and their families to track down half-siblings and biological fathers. One of the questions they asked was 'how old were you when you found out you were conceived using donor sperm?'

It should come as no surprise that all children raised in single-mother or lesbian families knew their origins by the age of 15, with most (87% in single-mother families and 88% in lesbian families) having found out by the age of 7. In contrast, heterosexual couples tended to be less honest. A third of offspring only found out when they were over 18 years of age, with 41% finding out over the age of 15. Most were eventually told by their mother, but 6% found out without either parent telling them - some told by other family members, and one overhearing a conversation between parents. There were too few to analyze, but I suspect the sense of betrayal would be especially high if the child found out without parents intending to tell.

They also asked how the respondents felt when they found out (if they were old enough to remember), and how they feel now about being donor-conceived. Compared to individuals told during childhood (4-11 years), those told during adulthood (18 or older) were significantly more likely to report feeling confused (69%), shocked (75%), upset (44%), relieved (38%), numb (38%) and angry (38%) - suggesting that being told was a strongly emotional and mostly negative experience for them (those told in adolescence showed intermediate reactions). In contrast, those told in childhood reported feeling mostly curious (71%, this emotion was common in all three age groups), with the next most common emotion being confused (37%). Overall, this suggests that the reaction was far less distressing if they were told before the age of 12.

Current emotions mirror the pattern found at disclosure, with individuals who found out in adulthood being more likely to feel currently feeling angry, relieved, shocked or ashamed. In contrast, most of those who found out in childhood reported feeling simply curious about the donor, and otherwise unconcerned with the method of their conception. (Relief was mainly seen in individuals who had suspected something was up, or in those whose social father had a hereditary medical condition.)

It also affected their relationships with their parents differently. With regards to their feelings toward their mother, those who found out in childhood were much more likely to report no change at all in how they felt about her. In contrast, those who found out later showed a mix of sympathy and appreciation of her honesty combined with a sense of betrayal and anger at being lied to.

In heterosexual couple families, the relationship with their social father was similarly affected. Although smaller sample size lessened the ability to find correlations, those who found out as adults were much more likely to feel betrayed. In contrast, most who found out in childhood felt sympathetic of their father's struggles with infertility, or else reported no change in relationship.

Another study suggests that even if offspring don't find out, keeping their origins a secret can adversely affect family functioning. They studied a sample of young adults conceived by sperm donation and raised in heterosexual couple families, 71% of whom had learnt of their conception after the age of 16. Although all the subjects had eventually found out, those who reported that parents avoided the topic of sperm donation (as parents who are keeping it secret must do) also reported parents avoiding other sensitive topics as well, such as avoiding discussion of friendship, sexuality, negative events and relationship issues. In addition, the subjects felt that overall family functioning was poorer. In addition, a study focusing on heterosexual couples who had used assistive reproduction techniques found that mothers who kept their child's origins secret reported more feelings of distress around parenting.

So, why are heterosexual couples so reluctant to tell their children about being conceived by sperm donation? Certainly, part of the reason is because they are more capable of hiding the truth. Most children learn at a young age that a typical family includes a mother and a father, and children raised by single mothers or lesbian couples will almost certainly ask why they don't have a father. When faced with such a direct answer, most mothers will tell the truth.

But comparison of different kinds of assisted reproduction reveal a more complicated situation. Heterosexual couples who used IVF or surrogacy with their own gametes are far more likely to tell their children about their origins, as seen in many different studies - here, here, here, and here. In addition, couples who used surrogacy with the surrogate's or a donor's eggs were more likely to tell children about their gestational history than their genetic origins.

It's ironic really - many parents who are secretive about gamete donation insist that it's irrelevant. However, surely being conceived by IVF with parents' own gametes is far less relevant to the child than being conceived with a donor gamete, and yet heterosexual couples are more honest about IVF, not less. This suggests that this is more wishful thinking than their true motivation.

Interestingly, fathers are typically more reluctant to discuss donor conception than mothers - and not just because they're the non-genetic parent. In this study, fathers in both sperm donation and egg donation couples judged genetic parenthood to be less important than mothers did, and both types of fathers were more likely than mothers to worry that contact with the donor could be harmful to their child. In this study and this study, fathers of oocyte-conceived children were less likely than their mothers to have told other people, such as family members, friends or medical professionals.

Although fathers and mothers generally agreed on their intention to tell or not tell the child, this study found that about half of couples using donor gametes came to an agreement after discussing differing opinions. In most such cases, the mother was initially in favour of telling while the father was against it, and the final decision was based on who won the argument. This implies that if it weren't for the father's opposition, most of the mothers would have told.

So, why is it that men are so much more reluctant to discuss donor conception? And, given the evidence that telling early and often is better for the children, how do we convince them to tell?


Blogger marilynn said...

Better off without "a" father is an interesting way to phrase things. I think your spot on correct in many of your social assessments and then quite incorrect in others, but only because I don't think you took some less talked about things into account when forming your opinion.

Everyone has a biological mother and father and the law requires them all, rich, poor, smart, stupid, loving and unloving to be accountable on the birth record as parents of their own offspring responsible for their care and upbringing until 18 or longer if their children are physically unable to care for themselves ever. The ONLY exception to that legal rule is for people who are labeled medical donors. On the surface that may seem reasonable but it creates a legal inequity in the responsibilities of people with offspring which results in an imbalance of rights for their offspring. A whole class of people who don't have the same rights as the rest of the population. Not the same citizenship rights, medical rights, legal kinship, legal identity, access to their family vital records. It is an unprecedented violation of civil rights because it's predicated upon the idea that the constitution does not apply to them because they were not created equal to the rest of the population and are therefore not subject to equal rights or protection from being trafficked and sold by their bio parents to the people who want them out of court and off the record. They don't even have the right to the meager protection offered by court approved adoption because back room agreements for abandonment are made prior to their births to conceal the abandoning parent's identities when they are born.
That is not to say that the people raising them will do a bad job raising them but they certainly are not dialed into the fact that they paid to have a biological parent abandon their child off the record so they could avoid the time trouble and documentation associated with legal relinquishment and so they could pick the traits of the abandoning parent out of a catalog. I help reunite these separated families and most of the people who were abandoned by parents that were donors were told early and often so it was just part of their regular world. But they are not just being told that they were abandoned by an unknown bio parent like with adoption, they are being told the people raising them wanted them so very much they were willing to pay for that bio parent to abandon their responsibilities to them and to exclude them from the family of the abandoning parent. So kudos for not lying to them about it but my friends were so floored at the audacity of those raising them they kept their thoughts to themselves. After all if these people are capable of taking someone's family away from them when they are getting what they want - who knows what they'd do if they did not get what they want. They are between a rock and a hard place: their bio family does not want them or does not know they exist and the people raising them, did not want to raise them as who they are - they only want them if they pretend to be either a person who has no father or pretend that their step parent is their father. They have to refer to their own parent as a donor and refer to their step parent as their parent just to get fed and taken care of. They have a job to do in order to earn their keep - be the hired bastard child that plays roll of those people's wanted biological child or else get rejected by them as well.

Sucks to be them no matter how loved the people raising them are they are still telling the truth about wanting a child to be abandoned because the child they wanted was never born.

That is not

11:54 AM  
Blogger marilynn said...

Also something else about telling someone an unpleasant truth early and often so that they become desensitized to the fact that it's not normal or reasonable for people to abandon their own biological offspring. It is internationally thought to be a bad thing to have kids you don't want and are not prepared to care for. That's why they have poste rs about avoiding teenage pregnancy and it's why they make condoms and birth control pills so that people can try harder to plan the time when they have offspring for when they can care for them. Otherwise they wind up having to give them up for adoption and everyone knows that is tragic even when the child is safer in an adoptive home nobody denies the tragic loss of the child who by rights deserved proper care and support from parents who failed.

So telling the truth while at the same time not allowing them to live it is a mind fk. They won't put it on their birth records or document it in court, they won't give them legal kinship when they find siblings on the DSR. They won't ever get dual citizenship in their abandoning parent's countries of birth and they won't ever have the right to the vital records of their relatives like the rest of the population. They don't have a right to accurate medical records on themselves even.

Telling the truth to these people is the same as growing up on a dairy farm...nothing smells funny to them even though they're standing knee deep in Bull Sht.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Maya M said...

Maybe some parents would prefer to be honest to their children, but don't want their fertility and other health and personal details to be discussed by everybody and their aunts. And young children are likely to share information around. The result may be the same as posting on Facebook that your wife conceived from a donor because you are infertile. You don't blog under your name for a reason, do you?

1:16 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

Maya M: What's more important: your privacy or your child's sense of identity? Yes, the child might talk about it with others. That's their right. Parents need to accept that. Once you become a parent, it's not just about what you want anymore.

marilynn: I think children conceived by donors should be told, but there is absolutely no evidence to argue that donor conception shouldn't be done or that the donor needs to be involved (beyond 'the child can get his identity at 18' which is now pretty common). Biology makes no difference to the parental connection.

As for the idea of 'not having the same rights' - if it's an unimportant right, what does it matter? The right that is important is the right to parents who care about and for you - not the right to receive parenting from people who share your genes. As long as their parents are honest, kids raised by nonbiological parents and/or away from biological parents - and the adults they grow into - are at no higher risk of psychological problems as anyone else.

As for whether you should have kids you don't want, there's a huge difference between giving up a kid with no guarantee that *anyone* will want them (not all adoptable babies get adopted) and giving up a child to a specific person or people who have gone to a great deal of effort to have a child.

5:14 AM  
Blogger marilynn said...

On having kids and not wanting them sometimes it happens and we hope the situation the child is placed in is a good one all things considered. What is not good of course is for someone to commission or request that a person not assume parental responsibility for their offspring so that they can instead keep and raise the kid as their own. That is requesting the child suffer the loss of their parent and separation from family so that they get to raise a kid . I reunite donor families and telling them they are wanted by the people raising them makes them pretty pissed off because it's as if the people raising them cant see that they had to be rejected by their parent to make someone else's family fantasy drama play out.

6:40 PM  
Blogger marilynn said...

On unimportant rights my goal is to help someday correct the law so that people with offspring have equal obligations which will result in their offspring all having equal rights. It had not occurred to me that equal rights and obligations could be achieved by reducing the rights of the general population to match donor offspring instead of giving donor offspring the same rights as the general population. I find the concept of unnecessary rights intriguing and want to contemplate the implications of for instance stopping states from recording births completely if we are not going to enforce the law against naming someone even a spouse as a parent on a birth record of a person that is not their own offspring. If the department of public health can't rely on the birth record to accurately record the identity of people who were healthy enough to reproduce and if they can't rely on the record to identify people as parents of their own offspring and leave matters of custody to the courts and off medical records then we should stop all federal funding for medical research on heritable disease and birth defects. The results of any studies based on vital statistics mired in inaccuracies are inherently flawed. We are recording sick people who are incapable of having children as if they are well enough to have kids and we are misattributing the health or illness of other peoples kids incorrectly to them. The healthiest people of reproductive age with the largest number of children are not named as the parents of their kids and the sibling group is not able to be observed as a single family. People worry that their kids might inbreed but they are overlooking the significant incidence of donors mating with relatives unknowingly because they can't see who they are having kids with. Donate anonymously we can't control reproductive freedom but we can and do legally obligate people to be named parents on their offsprings birth records for public health and safety. If the most prolific reproduces are not recorded at all and sterile elderly people are being credited as their parents there is simply no point in recording anything. Let people form their own property clusters, don't worry about trafficking because it can only be controlled if people are listed as parents of their own offspring and obligated to follow rules and procedures if they can't raise their kids so that their kids are protected from being sold or traded into the the custody of buyers desperate for the title of parent. Get rid of any legal kinship terminology that Hawkins back to bio normative kinship more legal mothers and fathers, property owners and transfers of title. Eliminate legal protections against being adopted out of family without cause and an attempt to find kinship care. Get rid of the need for parental consent to adoption get rid of adoption. Let people make arrangements that work best for their situation. Accept that identity is fluid and ever changing and that people are born again each time they are traded or name new keepers.

7:07 PM  
Blogger marilynn said...

Unimportant rights like accurate medical records, citizenship, the right to financial support from both parents, legal protection against being adopted out of the family without extensive investigation, the right to a permanent legal recognition of the permant parent child relationship with their mother and father and a legal right to care and support and kinship with step parents for the life of the marriage without having to loose their relationship or financial support from either parent. A relationship with someone who is not their parent should supplement their parent not supplant them. They have no vested interest in permanent legal relationships with their parents spouses whose connection to them legally should not outlast the marriage that introduced them. Any continuation of the relationship should be social and optional and never instead of their relationship with their parent. It's too bad if some step parents will have to not lie because they are not the parent of their spouses kid even if they love them more and work harder. People can't be earners or purchased neither can parenthood or parental title. Sometimes people that suck are parents and many times fantastic people are step parents or just friends of parents people should be themselves and stop stealing the identity of donor offspring.

7:23 PM  

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