Defending My Donor Egg & Donor Sperm Family – Part 2
***Please note: The information, views, and opinions contained and expressed by Kelley Wendell guest blogger for Parents Via Egg Donation are those of Kelley Wendell and do not necessairly reflect the views or opinions of Parents Via Egg Donation.
This blog is a three part series, you may read part one
here titled: Defending my donor egg & donor sperm family
By Kelley Wendell
As another election season approaches, Americans are called upon to weigh their personal values and opinions with that of two opposing candidates. We are to decide which philosophy best meets our needs and ideals, which candidate we trust to deliver on our chosen principles. Many of us are firmly grounded in certain aspects of our personal and political perspectives, but we are somewhat undecided about others. It is the undecided points that become the focus of debates with each side arguing their perspectives in hopes of persuading votes. As I had mentioned in my last blog, this is exactly the type of polarizing conflict that creates a ripe climate for debate; us versus them, so-to-speak.
As a mother of twins conceived with both donor eggs and donor sperm, I obviously choose to advocate in favor of assisted reproduction rights. But more importantly and first priority, it is my obligation to advocate for the emotional and social well being of my children. And yes, there are opponents out there who threaten it; some with seemingly convincing arguments and data. One of the most notable that comes to mind is a sociological study of survey methodology conducted by Elizabeth Marquardt. Mrs. Marquardt is the editor of FamilyScholars.org and vice president for family studies and the director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. Her study is entitled My Daddy’s Name is Donor (full document at http://www.familyscholars.org/assets/Donor_FINAL.pdf). Although the experimental design is fairly sound and results are presented in clear percentages with statistical analysis, a lack of clear definitions within the survey and subjective researcher interpretation renders the study’s scientific merit suspect. Additionally, the conclusions are extrapolated conjecture while biased terminology and anecdotal assertions are present throughout the entire article. The intent of this blog is to debate and refute Mrs. Marquardt’s findings and claims, many of which are downright offensive and potentially detrimental to my children and other families like mine.
*It is important to note that this study only surveyed and compared adult sperm donor offspring against both adopted and bio-raised adults. But Mrs. Marquardt repeatedly extrapolates her findings to also include egg donor offspring and goes on to attack donor gamete practices in general. Thus, this study is also applicable to the donor egg community and doubly applicable to me.
Terminology and Language
The negative flavor of the entire document becomes readily evident by opening with a horrific, century old example of artificial insemination in which even the recipient was unaware. Though this account dates back to 1884 and no similar current day practices are cited, the author ignores the story’s irrelevance in the interest of emotional manipulation. But the author’s bias truly takes shape when she reveals her terminology for identifying the men in the sperm donor/recipient relationship. First appearing on page 17, the sperm donor is identified as the “father”. But the man who desired the child, consented to being a donor recipient with his partner, and loves and raises the child for its entire lifetime is identified as the “social father”. One of the survey questions posed to the donor conceived respondents involved a list of possible indentifying titles to describe the sperm donor; the respondents were encouraged to check all that apply. Page 91 of the study reveals that donor offspring characterized their donor purely as “father/dad” only 21% of the time. Yet a full 98% of the respondents found it suitable to place a qualifier such as “genetic” or “biological” before the word father. The titles of “donor/seed giver/genetic contributor” and secondary qualifications of “father” were selected the overwhelming majority of the time. In addition, this particular question did not differentiate between donor offspring raised in a heterosexual parented family and those raised by a single mother or lesbian parented family, as it does for other questions within the survey. It is reasonable to assume that some, or possibly all, of those who chose to use the term “father” standing on its own were offspring who did not have a father physically in the home by comparison.
Absent and irresponsible “deadbeat fathers” are an unfortunate reality in our society. Public consensus seems to be that such men are spineless, deplorable, and are in no way entitled to the privilege of being called “father”. I am inclined to agree, emphatically so. But when a man shares his genetic material with a couple or woman accompanied by a legally binding contract stipulating that he chooses, even mandates, to relinquish any personal, legal, or emotional accountability toward potential offspring, Mrs. Marquardt gives him top billing as the “father”? Furthermore, the respondents in this study were not even offered the equivalent opportunity to characterize the sperm recipient, the man who raised them. Yet Mrs. Marquardt takes the audacious liberty of labeling him with the subordinate title of “social father”; this is Ms. Marquardt’s choice of words, not the respondents’. According to her ideology, I am my sons’ “social mother” and my husband is their “social father”. I assure you, Mrs. Marquardt, we did not endure years of loss and infertility, weather a high risk pregnancy, lovingly deliver and raise our sons—inclusive of nursing/breast pumping, midnight feedings, dirty diapers, vomit clean-up, health worries, nurturing, disciplining, educating, clothing, feeding, saving for college, and every other FULLY invested hallmark of parenting and unconditional love that can possibly be bestowed upon children—in the hopes that they will someday include us in their “social circle” on Facebook!
My Daddy’s Name is Donor is filled with various accounts of unhealthy family relationships and damaged self-esteem that resulted from poor or complete lack of honest disclosure regarding conception. The stories are indeed heart rendering. No one, myself included, likes the idea of children feeling deceived and/or misplaced as a result of their parents’ choices to keep the circumstance of their conception secret. Of course donor offspring are entitled to know as much as possible about their genetic histories and the manner in which they were welcomed to their families. But this does not mean that cases of mismanagement are the benchmark by which the practice of donor conception ought to be evaluated in general. Sadly, some of the offspring quoted in the article are so hurt by their families’ actions that they denounce assisted reproduction, even though they would not be alive without it.
Lindsay Greenawalt is noted on page 24 as saying, “Children are being created without any thought that a human being is involved in this. It is simply a business transaction between our parents, the doctor, and the anonymous donor, with no regard to the child.” This could not be further from the truth. It is impossible to be cast into the domain of the fertility impaired, typically after a lengthy pattern of devastating losses, without giving it much thought in the first place. There is nothing but the highest regard for both the children lost and mourned and the children yet to be sought.
On page 23 Christine Whipp is quoted as writing, “My existence owed almost nothing to the serendipitous nature of normal human reproduction, where babies are the natural progression of fulfilling adult relationships, …”. Again, this is a gross oversimplification of the emotional journey that leads a couple or woman to choosing donor conception. As previously mentioned, a great deal of mourning precedes assisted reproduction. There is the mourning of lost babies, the mourning of a normal reproductive course that others enjoy with such ease, and the mourning that the parents experience when they realize that they must let go of their own genetic connection if they are to conceive and deliver a child. It is an identity and relationship crisis to say the least. And the amount of love that is required to overcome it, to set aside pride for the joint goal of shared parenthood, to embark on a lifelong journey of surrendering our hearts to one another and to a child is paramount.
Despite the losses that donor recipient parents endure, we care more about endowing children with love than endowing them with our genetics. We love looking into our children’s eyes and nurturing the wonder that is reflected in them far more than any desire to look into their eyes seeking a reflection of ourselves. Make no mistake, Ms. Whipp, a great deal of contemplation and love went into the decision to conceive you. You are the product of a selfless act of love, not a selfish one.
Ms. Whipp is also quoted on page 58 as saying, “Donor conception cannot be practiced ‘nicely’ or ‘humanely’ in a way that does not have any negative impact on the people it creates. It must be the only medical treatment for which somebody other than the patient has to suffer.” On page 80 Mrs. Marquardt agrees and states such in the recommendations section of her study: “In no other area of medicine does the ‘treatment’ have such enormous potential implications for the persons who themselves never sought out that treatment (that is, the donor offspring).” Again, this is a misguided perspective and flagrant manufacture of fact. There definitely are other physician guided health care choices that people make for themselves which carry the potential to negatively impact their offspring. Conceiving to create a sibling with the potential to be an organ/marrow donor for the first child is one example [medical domain: oncology]. Deciding to proceed with a compromised pregnancy against expert medical advice, thus ensuring a short and likely sufferable life for the offspring (anencephaly, profound organ hypertrophy, etc.) is another [medical domains: obstetrics and neonatology]. And there are health care choices inflicted on offspring post-birth that address parental preferences as opposed to the child’s medical needs (circumcision) [medical domain: neonatology and pediatrics]. But of course, the most notable medical choice for oneself that profoundly affects the offspring is abortion [medical domain: obstetrics]. By comparison, or even standing on its own, it is difficult to swallow the notion that a healthy birth and existence within a loving but genetically unrelated family is in and of itself cause for “suffering”.
*Note: Neither the author nor PVED wish to express an opinion on the aforementioned issues. They are merely presented to illustrate the fallacy in the researcher’s assertions. It is also interesting to note that many donor recipients choose donor conception to avoid imparting a congenital defect on another human being.
Questionable Statistics and Interpretations
Several findings and interpretations cited in My Daddy’s Name is Donor are suitably subject to scrutiny, but to address them all would create a document as lengthy as the research paper in question, 135 pages. Thus, I will focus on just three. According to Mrs. Marquardt’s survey, donor offspring are more likely to have problems with the law (no definition is provided: citation or arrest? misdemeanor or felony?), engage in substance abuse, and be clinically depressed (see pages 37 & 115). The study shows that the statistical variation holds true even when controlling for age, gender, race and socioeconomic factors. However, when controlling for the critical factor of disclosure practices we see that the higher overall rates are driven by the manner in which this information was shared. Those with open and honest parents who informed them of their genetic origin before the age of twelve fared far better than those whose parents tried to keep it a secret; they even fared better than those whose parents shared openly but did so after the age of twelve. Even Mrs. Marquardt concedes that open honesty with a “tell early and tell often” approach produces better outcomes (pg. 54-55) and even recommends this practice in her conclusions (pg. 79). Mrs. Marquardt goes on to point out though that even the best donor statistics show a higher propensity for delinquency, dependency, and depression when compared to bio-raised adults. However, nowhere in this study did I see any consideration given to geographical location of the respondents. The social climate 20-30+ years ago for a donor conceived child raised by lesbian parents in Dubuque, Iowa would have been a very different climate than that of a similar child in San Francisco, California. It seems plausible, if not probable, that geography could have played a significant role in the social justice experience, and thus the emotional well-being, of the respondents.
Page 57 reveals that only 11% donor conceived respondents believe “donor conception is hard on children even when parents tell them the truth”. Mrs. Marquardt acknowledges that this is a small percentage but identifies it to be a negative outcome. However, there is no definition of “hard” in the questionnaire or the conclusion. Does “hard” mean it took a considerable amount of time to emotionally come to terms with their conception; does it mean that it seems impossible to emotionally digest; does it infer a sense of awkwardness in the disclosure discussion? Divorce, normal sibling rivalry, step-siblings and family blending, puberty, adolescent socialization, and even algebra are all “hard” for children even when handled well. And here’s the really interesting part: why were all of the donor conceived respondents asked to evaluate the difficulty of being a donor conceived child based on the truth telling practices of parents when 20% admit their parents attempted to keep it a secret and only 59% received the recommended approach of consistent and open honesty? It seems to me that this 11% statistic is an unexpectedly positive finding since 20% of the respondents had the most discouraged experience and additional 21% had a less than ideal disclosure (page 86). Similarly, page 99 reveals the results to the question, “What is your opinion of donor conception?” Only 7% of donor conceived respondents oppose it (4% somewhat & 3% strongly); whereas 15% of adopted and 18% of bio-raised respondents oppose it. If donor conception is so objectionable to the offspring; if “this study suggests there are serious possible harms and risks associated with being conceived with donor sperm” (page 49), then shouldn’t the opposition rate expressed by donor conceived adults be much higher? Additionally, the statistical occurrence of personality disorders including paranoid, schizoid, dissocial, emotionally unstable, histrionic, anxious, eccentric, immature, narcissistic, and passive-aggressive behaviors is 9% (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2007/national-survey-tracks-prevalence-of-personality-disorders-in-us-population.shtml). By comparison, a 7% dissention rate seems optimistically small, or at the very least statistically insignificant. In other words, one should expect a few negative responses to even the most positive issue; and this study also only produced a few.
Last on my list of questionable conclusions is Mrs. Marquardt’s recommendation on page 78 that donor conception be treated like adoption, inclusive of the “rigorous array of laws and practices…designed to explicitly protect the best interest of the child…”. The data presented to support this claim is, well, none. This study did not investigate the prevalence of child abuse or unfit parenting within the donor conceived community; nor does it cite data from any other source on the topic. In fact, Mrs. Marquardt spends a lengthy portion of her paper (pages 71-75) describing all the ways in which donor conception is NOT like adoption. She, of course, argues that it is worse for the child than adoption which is why she recommends parental screening. But again, she offers no solid evidence, not even anecdotal evidence, to validate this assertion.
Although assisted reproduction is certainly an issue I support and fiercely defend, I do concede that it is an ethically complex issue. Though I feel confident and secure in my perspectives, many wrestle with the empirical rightness or wrongness of donor conception. Research regarding the emotional and social health outcomes for donor offspring is absolutely appropriate, welcomed in fact. And Mrs. Marquardt’s study does illuminate some valid donor offspring concerns and reinforces the beneficial practice of “telling early and telling often”. She makes some worthy points about degree of donor anonymity and advocates for organizations such as the Donor Sibling Registry (www.donorsiblingregistry.com) for offspring who do wish to reach out to possible genetic connections. This issue continues to be a topic of healthy debate within the infertility community and it is my sincere hope that we continue to learn and thrive as donor families as a result.
But when it comes down to that empirical rightness or wrongness of donor conception, Mrs. Marquardt’s questionable statistics and ambiguous responses leading to biased conclusions add up to nothing more than conjecture. Politics are a two-sided coin. And politics regarding assisted reproduction are no different; they hinge on the amount of trust that can be placed in the data presented and the person espousing it. Despite a few valid points, My Daddy’s Name is Donor fails to produce data as compelling as Mrs. Marquardt would like us to believe.
-Kelley Wendel, RN, BSN, & most importantly, MOM
Kelley Wendel is the author of Birds of a Different Feather, a children’s book designed to instill a prideful sense of self and celebrate family inclusion regardless of genetic history. Birds of a Different Feather is endorsed and recommended by Parents Via Egg Donation (PVED), Donor Offspring: Books for Children, Creating A Family, and Adoption.com. To learn more about the author and the book, visit: www.kelleywendel.tateauthor.com Follow me on Twitter and Facebook; links available through the website.