The day after Stephanie Blessing learned she had been conceived with the assistance of a sperm donor and that the man she knew and loved as her father for 32 years was not her father, she went into shock. She remembers sitting in her rocking chair, staring into space. It was so bad, her husband had to remind her to do something as basic as changing their baby’s diaper.
“I was just catatonic,” she said.
The shock turned into depression, as she began to mourn what she had lost. “I was a daddy’s girl. I had a great childhood, and was the apple of my non-biological dad’s eye. [I] adored my dad,” said Blessing, a homeschooling mother of five, who lives in Tennessee.
“It really hurt to find out [my dad] wasn’t mine in the way I thought he was,” she said. “I grew up hearing about his dad being a cowboy. Everybody on dad’s side of the family could tool leather like nobody…my grandmother, who is about to turn 100…they aren’t mine anymore,” she said.
Then, she began to mourn the loss of her biological father. “As much as my dad adored me, it hurts to know that the man who helped create me chose to have nothing to do with my life,” said Blessing. “People are deceiving themselves if they think they can love somebody enough to make up for the person who isn’t there.”
She had never suffered from depression before, and her husband, an evangelical pastor, had no experience in dealing with an issue quite like this one.
Blessing was finally told her conception story due to concerns she had over her dad’s failing health from progressive supranuclear palsy, a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease. Once in robust health, her father was having an array of physical and cognitive problems, and his health appeared to decline more with each visit. Was Blessing genetically disposed to this disease? Would her husband have to take care of her the same way her mother now had to take care of her father?
The answer was no, yet much worse. Blessing learned she was conceived at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in 1976. Following the procedure, “The doctor told my parents to ‘go home, have sex, and pretend like this never happened, and get on with your life,’” said Blessing. Four years later, Blessing’s parents conceived her little sister naturally. “This convinced him maybe I really was his daughter,” she said.
A DNA test she took proved otherwise.
Here is what she knows about her biological father: he is of Eastern European Jewish descent, and was a medical student or intern. She has no legal right to any of the paperwork created in Dallas, and her biological father was guaranteed anonymity. She eventually contacted her mother’s doctor, James Aiman, who never returned her calls. Aiman passed away, and she discovered all her mother’s records were destroyed. She may never find out who her father is, but prays she will.
“I think my mother wanted a child so badly, she couldn’t think beyond her own need,” said Blessing.
Sperm donation, along with egg donation and surrogacy, are booming businesses in the US. But because it is a largely unregulated industry and there is no central registry tracking births from surrogacy and egg and sperm donation, figures such as number of births and how much money is made are difficult to come by, according to Jennifer Lahl, founder and president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.
Current laws offer little if any avenue to address the harm done to donor children, according to Margaret Liu McConnell, a Washington DC-based attorney whose work has appeared in The American Conservative, Commentary, and National Review.
McConnell points out that the law does not look kindly on persons who walk away from their parental responsibilities, for example the proverbial “deadbeat dad.” We do not allow a man who had a one-night stand that results in a pregnancy to walk away from financial responsibility for the child, and McConnell believes there may be parallels to donor fathers and mothers.
“Such laws could be implemented through medical regulations and through laws specifying that any AFT (artificial fertilization technology) contracts that require a sperm- or egg-donor parent to relinquish parental rights and duties are void as against public policy,” said McConnell.
Unfortunately, implementing any law would mean going toe-to-toe with “a multi-billion dollar medical industry, with a legal arm of professionals who specialize in advising clients on how to sever the rights and duties of egg and sperm donors toward their biological children,” said McConnell.
Still, if a law could make it past this medical Goliath in a state or federal legislature, McConnell feels confident about the inevitable battle to overturn it in the courts. “We’ve just seen in United States v. Windsor (the DOMA decision) that the Supreme Court did not take the opportunity to expand the fundamental right to marriage to encompass the right to marry a person of the same sex. The Court at this time does not appear eager to expand fundamental rights in the area of family formation,” McConnell said.
There are some parallels between third-party conception and adoption, but there are also key differences. Adoption is an attempt to improve on a tragic situation involving a child, whether it is parental death, abandonment, neglect, or abuse. While a donor-conceived child and an adoptee may both experience the trauma of abandonment and kinship separation, with donor conception and surrogacy, these separations are intentionally caused by the parents. In cases of adoption, on the other hand, orphans are not intentionally created in order to obtain “wanted” children. Similarly, money is not used as a tool to coerce or persuade parents to abandon their children in order to give another person or couple a child.
What exactly have been the effects of artificial reproductive conception on the children who result from it? The reactions of those conducting studies on the psychological and sociological effects of offspring conceived by sperm donors have ranged from sanguine to deeply concerned. Although surrogacy has been around for 30 years, there is only one documented study on its long-term effects, which found that children born by this method often have emotional problems. Egg donation is much newer, and useful information on that form of reproductive technology has yet to emerge.
“Personally I am always a little reticent putting too much stock into studies of children’s views and outcomes,” said Damian Adams, a donor-conceived research scientist who works in the medical field and lives in Adelaide, Australia. “Some of these studies have been conducted in the presence of their parents, which may influence the results, as can those that use the parents for feedback on the child’s wellbeing.”
He added that donor-conceived offspring may also feel pressured to answer a certain way out of fear of hurting the feelings of their parents, adding that many donor-conceived people he has talked with have mentioned to him they feel protective of the parents who raised them.
Adams said since there are studies showing various outcomes of reproductive technologies, the best thing to do is apply philosophy and legal precedence to how we view and regulate third-party conception. He also said looking to other areas, such as adoption, can give us more evidence concerning the effects of biological separation on children. Although the debate up to this point has mainly focused on sociological and psychological effects on children, which he views as incredibly important, Adams says he would also like to see more debate on biological health history, physical outcomes for children from the actual procedures used in their conception, and knowledge of kinship to avoid consanguity.
The Catholic Church is opposed to any form of reproductive assistance that interferes with the marital act, reducing procreation to an activity directed by doctors and scientists and turning children into commodities. This includes gamete donation and the use of surrogates (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2373-2379).
“Donor-conceived people are the guinea pigs”
Adams always knew he was conceived through sperm donation, as his parents began talking to him about it when he was three. “This was extremely rare in that era, as all parents were advised to keep it a secret,” he said.
Adams, like Blessing, had a happy childhood. “At that stage I was too busy being a kid and playing with friends than to worry about my origins. Also because I knew that I could not find out who my biological father was, I did not try and think about it too much, either,” said Adams, who is a Ph.D. candidate researching the welfare of donor-conceived people.
“I love my parents, and I find it sad that some people choose to view those donor-conceived people who are unhappy with their origins as coming from broken or unhappy homes,” he said. “That is simply not the case in all instances. While some argue that love is all that matters, we can see from my case that love does not conquer all.”
Once in favor of anonymous donor conception, his views changed after the birth of his daughter. “It was a moment not too dissimilar from the moments that parents often report experiencing when they hold their child for the first time and stare into their baby’s eyes,” he said.
“It was an acceptance and knowledge of a biological connection. That no matter what might happen in the world, we would always be father and daughter,” he said. “This biological connection made me think about how I would feel if my daughter grew up not knowing who I was.”
“This was a concept I could not bear to think about, but instead I applied it to how this notion did in fact mirror my own life. While events transpired that I do not know who my donor is, and I may never know, there will always be a biological connection that can never be broken. So instead of being an extremely joyous time, there was part of it that was incredibly dark as I reflected on what [I’d been] deprived of,” Adams said.
“I do experiments every day in a lab, and what I have seen and researched in the donor-conception field mirrors what I do in the lab. Donor-conceived people are the guinea pigs,” said Adams.
Surrogacy: Not about children’s best interests
Jessica Kern, a 29-year-old waitress who lives in Warrenton, Virginia, is anything but a right-wing culture warrior. A self-described liberal, Kern is not Catholic or evangelical, and has no problems with gay marriage or gay adoption. She is, however, on a crusade of sorts, albeit a secular one, against surrogacy and other forms of third-party conception, practices she would like to see banned.
“I don’t believe it’s a natural thing to separate a child from [her] biological parents. People want to minimize the connection there,” said Kern.
Kern was conceived when her biological father and adoptive mother hired her biological mom to be a surrogate. Her father donated sperm, and her biological mother donated the egg and carried her to term.
Kern does not want to see children suffer like she did growing up. Having endured years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother, Kern left the home on the advice of her therapist. Kern attributes this in part to the “Cinderella Effect,” a term psychologists coined to explain the higher rate of abuse by step-parents compared to biological parents.
“It shows biology does count for something,” said Kern.
“When I found out I was a product of surrogacy, I thought it was just my situation that was bad,” said Kern. According to her, it wasn’t.
“Our voice isn’t out there, because the industry has captured the story,” said Kern. She said she wished people had more balanced information about surrogacy.
“I don’t understand why [people] are so desirous to create children when we have so many out there to adopt,” said Kern. With adoption, “those children are already in the world, they already need a home. They aren’t being created specifically for [making] families,” she said.
“[There] are price tags that hang over our heads,” said Kern. “I wouldn’t be here if $10K [hadn’t been exchanged]. [There] is something inherently wrong about turning children into commodities.”
Kern recently testified against a Washington DC bill titled the Surrogacy Agreement of 2013, which would legalize gestational surrogacy contracts in the district. It’s currently illegal to enter into this type of contract in DC, and doing so is punishable by a $10,000 fine. Gestational surrogacy differs from traditional surrogacy in that the surrogate carries a baby conceived with the egg of a different woman, rather than her own biological child. According to Kern, this type of surrogacy is supposed to be legally “cleaner” and result in fewer custody or financial disputes, because of the belief that a woman will be less attached to the child if the egg used is not her own.
Kern said the powers that be at the hearing for the DC bill made it clear it was not a matter of if the bill would pass, but when.
“There was a time in my life I would carried a child for someone who couldn’t conceive. I would have been willing to do it for free,” said Kern.
She feels very differently now. “All third-party conception feels a little selfish to me at the end of the day. It is all about what the adults want, they don’t [care about] the children’s needs,” said Kern.
Surrogacy also presents health and ethical issues for women and for the poor. “You can’t donate a kidney for profit,” said Kern. “When a person decides to donate an organ, [she is] not allowed to be financially compensated, because there is a chance that [she] may dismiss the health risks…over the money that might be earned. I know that the women participating in egg donation and surrogacies are not accurately informed of the health risks involved because there have been no long-term studies done to see what the consequences are. [In these situations] there is no such thing as informed consent because there are no studies out there.”
“Children are not a right,” adds Blessing. “Nowhere in the Bible does it say children are a right. Children are a blessing. You can’t demand a blessing. When you take [a blessing], even when you pay for your sperm or egg, you are stealing.”
Although the Catholic Church clearly teaches against these methods of conceiving children, one study reported that 36 percent of the offspring of sperm donation were raised Catholic. Thirty-two percent of donor-conceived offspring said they were raised Protestant.
In the Protestant churches Blessing has attended, she said she doesn’t remember people talking about assisted reproductive conception, but she had a feeling it was somewhat accepted. “I don’t know how to talk to Christians about this,” said Blessing. “We are so pro-life, it seems like we are OK with creating babies at any cost. I really wanted to go to churches and speak, but I don’t know how I can talk to them about this without alienating them.”
“It seemed normal to me”
Alana Newman is a wife, mother, singer, musician, and founder of The Anonymous Us Project, which is described on its website as “a safety zone for real and honest opinions about reproductive technologies and family fragmentation.”
Newman was told she was donor-conceived when she was five. Since it was a fact she grew up with, the idea of third-party conception seemed very normal to her, she said.
Newman’s mom’s first husband was infertile, so they adopted a girl from South Korea. They tried to adopt a second daughter, but were denied, and decided to use a sperm donor. The couple divorced when Newman was eight, and her mother remarried and gave birth to a son who was naturally conceived.
Newman and her mother’s first husband were not close. “I remember very clearly not feeling safe with him. There were instances of neglect. Anytime I wanted something, I would ask my mom. I had this sense I was bothering him,” she said. After the divorce, Newman never saw him again.
As she got older, “I had a whole lot of behavioral problems, [was] very promiscuous, and I was engaged in lethal behavior,” she said. Although she tested as having a very high IQ, Newman practically had to beg to finish high school, her grades were so low. She said she remembers feeling very confused about why she was not worthy of love.
Growing up, all she knew about her biological father was that he had blond hair, blue eyes, and a college degree. Years later, other details about her father began to emerge, thanks to her research: he was Polish and Catholic. He had been a scuba instructor, and had a degree in respiratory medicine.
With this information in hand, Newman created a scheme to make herself famous in order to gain visibility and get the help she needed to locate her father. She started blogging, wrote a screenplay, and began connecting with leaders in the area of donor-conceived rights and advocacy. She met a woman who helps people find adoptees. Someone paid for her to have a DNA test. Databases of scuba instructors and respiratory medicine graduates were used to identify the man she believes is her father.
Unfortunately for Newman, he died in 2007, the year she began searching for him.
The fact that her biological father was Polish and Catholic inspired Newman to read that very famous Polish Catholic, Pope John Paul II. His writings on marriage and family were among the things that got her interested in becoming Catholic. This fall, she and her husband, Rickard, will start RCIA. “The fact that Catholics are the only non-donor-conceived people interested in this topic caused me to check it out. [Catholics] actually thought about it,” she said.
Newman, Kern, and Blessing all support bans on gamete donation, as well as surrogacy. There was a time when Newman believed differently; she even donated her own eggs twice. In fact, donor-conceived people are 20 times more likely to sell their own gametes than are non-donor-conceived people.
Does this finding mean donor-conceived offspring approve of their mode of conception? Not exactly, said Newman. “It stems from our values-endowment,” said Newman. “Just as I speak English because my mom taught me to speak English, when I was 20—old enough to sell eggs, but young enough to still be primarily influenced by my parents—it was a very normal thing to use a third person to have kids and, in fact, traditional families were strange to me,” she said.
“I disagreed with anonymity, and offering myself as an open-ID donor was my small contribution to improving a system,” said Newman.
“And lastly, harder to explain, selling my own gametes was the only experience I could share with my father. It was the only thing I knew for sure that he had done. It was my attempt at poetry,” she said. “Only recently have I gathered enough information to say ‘No, I have to put my foot down, it’s wrong.’”
Adams sees a wide spectrum of emotions among the donor-conceived. “There is a whole rainbow of emotions in the donor-conceived community,” he said. “Some are extremely happy about their conception, while others are extremely traumatized. And there are those at various stages in between. We cannot know for certain what the majority of offspring think, because the majority do not know that they are donor-conceived.”
“Many donor-conceived people I know who have spoken out have been humiliated, insulted, and attacked on the Internet,” said one donor-conceived researcher who has followed these issues very closely over the past 12 years, and who asked to remain anonymous. “Not many are willing to speak out anymore unless they only stick to what is safe, ending anonymity, openness, honesty, etc.”
This researcher added that the battle to regulate these reproductive practices is daunting, due to the groups opposing regulation, which she believes include many in the media, the Hollywood elite, the LGBT lobby, and some feminist groups (although some feminist leaders have spoken out against surrogacy), as well as those in the medical profession and the fertility industry, to name a few.
In addition, other complicated issues make it hard to have honest discussions about artificial reproductive conception. These include the overall normalization of in vitro fertilization, donors’ laws favoring intended parents over biological parents, three-parent IVF, genetic testing on IVF embryos, selective “reductions,” and, soon, same-sex reproduction and cloning.
For his part, Adams is not in favor of banning third-party conception, but takes a more pragmatic approach. “Donor conception is a part of the multi-billion dollar fertility industry. This industry is extremely powerful as a lobby group,” he said. “After all, doctors are highly respected members of society. Also the media often portrays infertility stories which are heart-breaking. These stories are ones that we, as adults, and particularly parents, can relate to. Combined, they are a powerful vehicle to ensure that the infertile continue to be given the freedom to procreate. In some parts of the world it is also enshrined in legislation or regulation as a legal form of procreation. Additionally it is now viewed by a large portion of society as an acceptable form of procreation. Finally it is also now being practiced outside of the clinic and legalized frameworks as private arrangements in peoples’ own homes.”
“A more pragmatic approach is to realize this and create arguments for reform of the practice,” Adams argues. “Pragmatism should also be based on evidence, in this instance I believe it should be based on the welfare and outcomes—the evidence—of the people created from such practices, as they are the most vulnerable.”
For Newman, pragmatism just does not go far enough. “[So, if] you own a slave, it’s best to feed [him] well, take care of [his] health, not whip [him], be kind, but at the end of the day it’s wrong to force people to work somewhere they don’t want to work,” she said.
“With third-party reproduction, it’s better if you provide a safe, loving home with good schools, perhaps pen-pal relationships with half-siblings and a picture of the donor, but it doesn’t matter how many PTA meetings you attend or violin lessons you buy the child. At the end of the day it’s wrong to coerce third parties to abandon their offspring so you can experience parenthood,” said Newman.
One argument that third-party-conceived offspring hear often can be summed up as: “Why are you complaining? You are here, aren’t you? You wouldn’t be here without this technology.”
“You would never ask someone who [was] conceived by rape or incest if [she is] grateful for being alive,” said Newman. “There are just ways of bringing a person into the world, and unjust ways to bring a child into the world.”
“If it is illegal to buy and sell a person,” said Newman. “It should be illegal to pre-buy a person.”
Related reading: “The Injustices of the Surrogacy Industry” by Sister Renée Mirkes