MY DADDY’S NAME IS DONOR:
A New Study of Young Adults Conceived through Sperm Donation
A study published by the Institute for American Values (Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval D. Glenn and Karen Clark) Analyzes the results of web interviews of 1,687 adults ages 18-45. The young adults were divided into three groups:
Sperm Donor Conceived Offspring: n=562
Adopted Offspring: n=562
Raised by Biological Parents Offspring: n=563
The authors came up with the following findings:
1. Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.
2. Family relationships for donor offspring are more often characterized by confusion, tension, and loss.
3. Donor offspring often worry about the implications of interacting with – and possibly forming intimate relationships with – unknown, blood-related family members.
4. Donor offspring are more likely to have experienced divorce or multiple family transitions in their families of origin.
5. Donor offspring are significantly more likely than those raised by their biological parents to struggle with serious, negative outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse, and depression, even when controlling for socio-economic and other factors.
6. Donor offspring born to heterosexual married couples, single mothers, or lesbian couples share many similarities.
7. At the same time, there appear to be notable differences between donor offspring born to heterosexual married couples, single mothers, and lesbian couples.
8. Donor offspring broadly affirm a right to know the truth about their origins.
9. About half of donor offspring have concerns about or serious objections to donor conception itself, even when parents tell the children the truth about their origins.
10. Openness alone does not appear to resolve the complex risks that are associated with being conceived through sperm donation.
11. While a majority of donor offspring support a right to know the truth about their origins, significant majorities also support, at least in the abstract, a strikingly libertarian approach to reproductive technologies in general.
12. Adults conceived through sperm donation are far more likely than others to become sperm or egg donors or surrogates themselves.
13. Those donor offspring who do not support the practice of donor conception are more than three times as likely to say they do not feel they can express their views in public.
14. Donor conception is not “just like” adoption.
15. Today’s grown donor offspring present a striking portrait of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity.
This is, as far as I know, the largest, most comprehensive study ever done on young donor sperm offspring.
Finally, some of the mystery begins to unravel: what happens to people conceived through sperm donation: do they grow up unscathed by the process that brought them to this world?
How much does genetics play a role in who we are? Are donor offspring a good model to study nature versus nurture?
As the study points out, there are different sperm donation situations: a single mother; a mother married to a man with no sperm; and the ever-growing community of lesbian parents.
Obviously, 3 dramatically different households for donor offspring to grow up in. Issues of role modeling: is there a male role model? And what about the female role model, if instead of a heterosexual, married mom, your mother is single or, you have two (lesbian) mothers? What’s more confusing: to grow up with no male as a parent, or growing up with a father figure who’s not your biological father?
What does it feel like to grow up with the constant shadow of secrecy following you wherever you go: How did you get here? What is your DNA lineage?
What does it mean if it’s taken all these years for her (them) to tell me my father was a sperm donor? Is it something I should be ashamed of? Donor offspring who grow up with 2 heterosexual parents are camouflaged. No one at school will ask: who’s your dad? Where’s your dad? It’s a different story when there’s only a mother, or 2 mothers, and no father.
So how does this study change things?
Should donor inseminations be stopped? Better regulated?
As is commonly asked in reproductive ethical debates: are these children better off not being born at all, rather than having to deal with this emotional baggage for the rest of their lives? This is a very difficult question to answer. Impossible. My guess is that most, if not all the donor offspring who’ve now reached adulthood would rather be her, than not exist at all!
Right now, women can purchase sperm directly from a sperm bank, try to conceive by themselves (“the turkey baster technique”), and never see a doctor.
We, fertility doctors, feel that this practice is wrong, potentially dangerous (could introduce infections, for example), and that donor inseminations should be confined to a meticulously run program specializing in reproductive technology.
The law (at a state level) should prohibit direct sales of donor sperm to consumers.
Is there anything we should change in the way we practice sperm donation? Yes. This study is an eye opener. Every reproductive endocrinologist should read it. She or he should tell their patients about it. Counseling by a psychologist experienced in gamete donation should be offered, if not mandated.
We, fertility doctors, cannot escape the responsibility we’ve been charged with. We are NOT reproductive technicians. We are physicians with social responsibilities. While we cannot assume the role of a moral compass, we can’t sit by the wayside and watch the children we have created suffer. As the babies we have created come into adulthood, we should keep a close watch on their psychosocial integration into society. This study should make us take a critical look into our current practices and constantly assess what we do, how we do it, and aim to do better.