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Artificial Reproduction: The Human Dimension

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 02/22/13

Donor-assisted conception deliberately severs children from their parent, giving rise to disordered relationships and confused identities

“When my wife and I met in college, the attraction was immediate, and we quickly became inseparable. We had a number of things in common, we came from the same large metropolitan area, and we both wanted to return there after school, so everything was very natural between us.” Little did the writer of that statement know that he and his wife – with whom he has fathered three children – had one other thing in common: they were both conceived with sperm from the same donor.

No, this isn’t a scene from Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World, but rather a recent letter to “Dear Prudence” featured on Slate.com (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/dear_prudence/2013/02/dear_prudence_my_wife_and_i_came_from_the_same_sperm_donor.html). One wishes that this was a sensationalized piece of science fiction, but for this couple – who are at once husband and wife as well as half-siblings – it is reality. While not every scenario is this dramatic, it is evident from a number of personal stories and survey statistics that the conception of children through donor-supplied eggs or sperm cannot be casually assumed to have the same results as conception through the sexual union of husband and wife. When one of the biological parents is an anonymous donor, children conceived through these reproductive methods face some major challenges about their families, their history, and their own identities – a significant ethical dilemma that has been largely ignored by the wider culture. What are the implications for a society wherein so many children are born in this way?


What is the outcome of sperm or egg donation?

A scientific study entitled “My Daddy’s Name is Donor,” conducted by a Commission for Parenthood’s Future (a non-religious, non-partisan organization), estimates that 30-60,000 children are born each year in the United States through sperm donation. The numbers listed above is an educated guess – there is not a mandatory system in place in the United States for keeping track of children conceived in this way, nor for those who donate sperm or eggs. This in and of itself has dangerous repercussions for our society, since we cannot see the effects of this procedure, which places reproduction outside of its natural framework, with complete accuracy.

These “test tube babies” are born into families of heterosexual couples, single mothers, and homosexual couples, as well as into every ethnicity and religion. What they have in common is that hundreds of thousands of children and adults in this country not only do not know one of their biological parents – they don’t even know their own identity.

Reproductive technologies such as these already take conception out of the marital embrace and into a laboratory. When an anonymous donor is used, this unnatural course of action is taken a step further: not only is a baby conceived outside of a mother’s womb, but one of the parents is intentionally taken out of the baby’s life before it even begins. Normally, egg or sperm donors are considered merely one end of a business transaction, lacking any legal claim to parenthood. On the surface level, some might compare anonymous donation to adoption, but there is a crucial difference: adoption enables children who already exist to be welcomed into loving families. The focus is on the welfare of the child. Conversely, reproductive technologies with anonymous donors lead to the purposeful conception of a child with the specific intent to separate him from a biological parent.

In a Washington Post article, Katrina Clark talks about her life as a daughter of a single mother and an anonymous donor. She notes that these procedures seem to take into account only the desires of the potential parents, not of the children conceived. She writes, “Those of us created with donated sperm won’t stay bubbly babies forever. We’re all going to grow into adults and form opinions about the decision to bring us into the world in a way that deprives us of the basic right to know where we came from, what our history is and who both our parents are.”


How are the lives of artificially conceived children affected as a result of the procedure?

When the man who discovered he was married to his biological half-sister wrote a letter about the situation, part of Prudence’s response to him was: “I think there’s way too much emphasis put on DNA. Yes, you two will have had a shock, but when it wears off you will be the same people you were before you found out.” This rather unscientific response is refuted by the many adults who freely relate how they have been negatively affected by the way they were conceived and by sharing DNA with an anonymous parent and a number of potential half-siblings.

While donor-assisted conception has been occurring for much longer, sperm and egg banks came into particular prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, which means many of the conceived children are now young adults. In the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” report, 485 adults who were conceived through anonymous sperm donation were surveyed. While it would be reductive to assume that the method of their conception had the same effect on everyone, some prominent themes emerged in the study:

·    “My sperm donor is half of who I am” (65% of those surveyed agreed with that statement).
·    “The circumstances of my conception bother me” (45% agree; almost half report that they think about donor conception at least a few times a week or more often).
·    “It bothers me that money was exchanged in order to conceive me” (45% agree).
·    “It is wrong for people to provide their sperm or eggs for a fee to others who wish to have children” (42% agree).
·    “When I see friends with their biological fathers and mothers, it makes me feel sad” (48% agreed).
·    “Donor offspring and those who were adopted are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25.”
·    “Donor offspring are about 1.5 times more likely than those raised by their biological parents to report mental health problems.”

While these statistics certainly show that not everyone feels the same way about being artificially conceived, it also clearly demonstrates that a large quantity of people have been negatively impacted by their parents’ decision. These statistics seem to illustrate what Katrina Clark claims: “I’m here to tell you that emotionally, many of us are not keeping up. We didn’t ask to be born into this situation, with its limitations and confusion. It’s hypocritical of parents and medical professionals to assume that biological roots won’t matter to the ‘products’ of the cryobanks’ service.” Clearly, the manner of the conception matters to a great many of these young adults.


What are the implications of artificial reproduction?

The letter to Prudence is emblematic of the eerily futuristic era we have entered into: people choosing biological parents for their future children out of catalogs; embryos constructed in artificial wombs; and anonymous sperm donors frequently having over ten children, all with different women. A recent 2011 New York Times story recounts how many children conceived with the help of donors seek out their half-siblings. (One such group of half-siblings is comprised of an astonishing 150 children!)

As a culture, we are only beginning to grasp the multitude of ways in which society is affected by severing the tie between sexuality and procreation. A whole generation of young adults are coming of age who were intentionally deprived of a life with a biological father and a mother and, often, of even knowing the identity of that person or their biological brothers and sisters. Considering that family has long been universally acknowledged as the fundamental building block of society (even if only implicitly), incalculable concerns arise when considering that many children lack access not only to biological parents, but also to that parent’s extended family (grandparents, cousins, etc.) and to their family’s background. While all of the effects of donor-assisted conception are not yet clear, it is evident that this is a trend that deliberately deprives children of the most natural of gifts: their parents.

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