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
“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.
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
“I think my mother
wanted a child so badly, she couldn’t think beyond her own need,” said
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
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
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.
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
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
“Donor-conceived people are the
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
“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
“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.
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
“I don’t believe it’s a natural thing to separate a child
from [her] biological parents. People want to minimize the connection there,”
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 20old enough to sell eggs, but young enough to
still be primarily influenced by my parentsit 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.”
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,
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 outcomesthe evidenceof the people created
from such practices, as they are the most vulnerable.”
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.
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
“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.”
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