A parenting spectrum

The Washington Post ran a bunch of articles yesterday about different kinds of parent-child relationships in this era of assisted reproduction:

  • Liza Mundy, who is apparently writing a book about assisted reproduction, writes an overview article, with the obligatory Mary Cheney references.
  • Katrina Clark writes about having been conceived by anonymous sperm donation.  She also answered questions on line today.  She writes with passion and pain about having been stripped of the "right" to know who her father is.
  • Mike Livingston writes about being a known sperm donor, or maybe occasional father to the child of a lesbian couple.

And, in a completely unrelated article, part of their Being a Black Man series, Neely Tucker writes about Tim Wagoner and how he is navigating what it means to be a father when he’s not married to the child’s mother.

It’s an interesting, provocative set of articles.  One of the points that Mundy makes is that until recently, sperm donation was mostly the province of married couples, as it was essentially the only option that doctors could offer to "treat" male-factor infertility.  Such donation was societally invisible and, in many cases, hidden even from the children.  These children may have been denied access to their genetic heritage, but had social fathers, so face different issues than Clark.

My one complaint is with Mundy’s blithe statement "There aren’t enough adoptable children in the United States to meet people’s desire for kids and family life."  Setting aside the blithe labelling of over 100,000 kids as "unadoptable," I think it’s wrong to suggest that the majority of people using reproductive technologies would choose to adopt if there were suddenly a huge number of healthy infants available for adoption.  What makes the use of donor eggs and sperm so fascinating is that some of the people who go that route are largely doing so because they want a genetic connection to at least one of the social parents, even as they minimize the social connection to one of the genetic parents.


1)  The comments made me realize that I hadn’t included enough modifiers in the last sentence — so I added the "some of" and took out the "largely."   I apologize if I offended with my carelessness.

2) Family Scholars blog is doing a round up of blog-reactions to the Clark essay, and included a link to this post.  Can anyone point me to something I wrote that makes Elizabeth Marquardt think that I’m a "donor insemination mom"?  The link may be getting a different assortment of commenters than usual.  It’s worth restating my policy that I don’t censor comments for opinions that I disagree with, but I reserve the right to delete comments that I think cross the line into personal attacks. 

13 Responses to “A parenting spectrum”

  1. Jody Says:

    In my anecdotal experience, a great many infertile couples choose donor gametes because they’re considerably less expensive and considerably more available than adoptive children. Yes, the genetic component matters, but just as important is the fact that donor sperm is available everywhere, for almost no cost to speak of (especially in the context of fertility treatments), and while donor eggs are far more expensive, they require no homestudy or legal oversight by Family Services or long application and selection process. If you’ve been trying to conceive for several years already, the appeal of donor gametes — which are generally available in your very next cycle — is massively greater than that of beginning the adoption process.
    When weighing the various options, once conception with one’s own genetic material has failed, of course the ethical and genetic implications matter, but the speed factor is a not-inconsequential complicating element that cuts across discussions about “what feels right.”
    Also, many women wish to experience pregnancy (and breastfeeding) and the use of donor gametes makes that possible.
    Also, many couples (even more than are hinted at in the Post articles) want to keep the genetic facts of their children’s conceptions a complete secret. No one can any longer believe that this is possible with adoption, but people still (mistakenly, in my view) believe that the use of donor gametes (and donor embryos) allows them to hide their infertility from the world and from their offspring. A surprisingly large number of people who use donor eggs and sperm continue to insist, regardless of all evidence to the contrary out of the era of closed adoption, that their children couldn’t possibly have any interest in the “mere donors of genetic material.”
    People will go to great lengths to avoid having to re-define what it means to be a “real” parent. Especially in the midst of the trauma of infertility.

  2. Mrs. Ewer Says:

    What Jody said! Infertile couples often fear they’d be rejected by an adoption agency because of their age, legal problems, financial situation, or religious convictions (such as believing it’s okay to spank). The age and health requirements (must be over 30, must be younger than 45, must have been married 5 years, must not be more than 30% overweight, must spend 2 months overseas, etc.) for international adoption can be a real barrier.
    Adoptive parents have no idea what the child has been exposed to in the womb or foster home, or what kind of genetic material they will have to work with — which is a frightening unknown for today’s control-freak parents. Children put up for adoption in the U.S. are more likely to be poor, abused, and formula-fed, and less likely to have had good prenatal care. Couples who choose donor sperm or eggs get to carefully screen for talented, good-looking donors with a college education, as well as control the pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding processes.
    Plus, up to 50 percent of U.S. birth mothers who start the adoption process change their mind and decide to keep their child. And that puts the adoptive couple back at square one, after they’ve begun believing a child will finally be put in their arms.

  3. Marty Says:

    I cannot disagree with either of the previous commenters, but am consistently disturbed by the actions of gay parents who are NOT medically infertile. Socially infertile perhaps, but since when is gender bias an acceptable reason to deprive a child of a father (or a mother, as the case may be)?
    I can’t fault a woman from wanting to be a mother, any more than I could fault a child for wanting a father. Infertility is a medical condition worthy of research, compassion, and maybe even a little bending of the rules (quietly, of course). But gender bias? This is a social condition, not a medical one. Deliberately depriving a kid of a mother or father for no better reason than your own disdain for the opposite sex is practically child abuse. IMHO.

  4. pink Says:

    Um, Mrs. Ewer, “formula-fed” is equivalent to “abused” and poor prenatal care?! I’ll have to let my formula-fed for the first year of her life, incredibly healthy, very bright two year old know that.
    (Sorry, Elizabeth, but that just chaps my hide.)

  5. W Says:

    Wow. In two consecutive comments we’re dissing formula-feeding moms and gay parents!
    Babble (which Elizabeth wrote about recently) had a great piece on the breast vs. bottle debate (http://www.babble.com/content/articles/features/dispatches/ingall/). As a bottle-fed baby myself (with two loving hetero parents, including a SAHM, that never hit me) and as a mother who ended up bottle-feeding myself (mostly for emotional reasons as I was getting post-partum), it’s really not that bad. I’m a happy healthy intelligent job-holding married mother and my almost 3 year old is in great health and is amazingly intelligent himself. I find that this breast vs. bottle thing is mostly about breastfeeding moms trying to make themselves feel superior to other mothers.
    And really? You’re arguing against letting gay couples adopt? I’ve got to whip out the Britney Spears argument here. You really think children adopted by loving, committed gay parents are worse off than the spawn of now-divorcing Brit and K-fed?

  6. W Says:

    Woops. Should have replaced adopt with “use infertility methods to concieve” in that last graph.

  7. jen Says:

    Mrs. Ewer’s mention of control-freak parents gets to the heart of it for me. In today’s climate, where parents are essentially judged by the “success” of their children, there is great incentive for parents to eliminate any factor that might be a challenge.
    I guess my urge to rant against this very premise — the idea that we are anything more than custodians of the little people in our lives — is a bit pointless. It doesn’t help parents today. But I do see all sorts of parents around me; gay and straight, single and coupled, adoptive and natural … and I don’t see any one demographic that automatically trends towards better parents. I’ve seen crappy parents of all stripes, and great parents of all stripes.
    I was originally going to argue that those who are “deliberate” parents, meaning those that have to fight harder to have kids (i.e. go thru inseminations, or do the adoption dance) are typically better at parenting. But now that I think about it, that’s not always the case. There does not seem to be the expected connection between ferocity of desire for one’s own child and actual parenting skills. I’ve got 2 sets of acquaintances who went thru years of fertility treatments, had the obligatory set of fraternal twin boys, and then found themselves absolutely overwhelmed by the reality of parenting twins. One of those couples brought in a nanny so the mom could go back to work, thus saving her sanity — and perhaps saving the kids, who got much better care from the nanny. The other made no change, never saying why but you can imagine how difficult it would be after all that to admit how hard it is. That family is a mixed bag; the kids are still too young to judge whether it was the best decision for them. So it’s clear I’m not picking on those who go for fertility treatments, I’ve seen the same with adoptions. I know some pretty high-minded people with lots of resources who find that the parenting thing is harder for them than they’d expected. I also know people who have decided to adopt against all odds and are totally making it work. Mixed results.
    And so in the end I end up surprisingly sympathetic to the parents who are trying to limit risk, to not rock the boat, to not emphasize the differences in their family’s experimental setup. Most of us have *no idea* what kind of parents will be until the kid is in our arms. And so we have no idea what we can take on. And so we try to take on only what we’ve seen others (perhaps just others in our family, or whatever group we feel is the best comparison point) succeed at. And even then it doesn’t always turn out!

  8. Mrs. Ewer Says:

    Breastfeeding is a big deal for many prospective moms. Ask any lactation consultant who has worked with an adoptive mother to induce lactation.
    The CNN homepage is reporting that China is changing their adoption rules. They won’t allow the unmarried, couples married for less than two years, the obese, anyone taking antidepressants, or anyone with a “severe facial deformity” to adopt Chinese children. Also: both parents must be between 30 and 50. These are the sorts of restrictions that drive people to fertility clinics.

  9. jen Says:

    Sorry to be snippy, but is it known that babies coming from China were getting acceptable pre-natal care? And if those babies are being abandoned at birth — as I’ve read they are — how could they be breast-fed?

  10. smokey Says:

    I think one thing that people are losing sight of in the “alternative reproductive technologies (ART) vs. adoption” choice is that ART is *very* seductive. Maybe you’re ‘just’ having a hard time conceiving your second? Maybe you’re only 30 and it’s taken you >12m. to get pregnant, and you think that it will be just a few rounds of clomid to get pregnant? But then it continues, and a successful pregnancy feels just around the corner (ie “We’re going to change your dosage of MedX to N+1 and we’re going to add a course of MedY to your protocol.”) Next thing you know, you’ve been trying to get pregnant for 2-3 years and have slowly been depleting your savings on co-pays. And, you’re now considering IVF with a donor gamete, even though you thought you would pull the plug after IVF.
    Now you think maybe it’s time to look into adoption. But, as somebody pointed out, the financial requirements for both domestic and int’l. adoptions can be daunting. And while domestic adoptions often don’t have the explicit limitations of int’l. (e.g. regulatory requirements that a couple be male/female or married or of a certain age), many of the same expectations are implicit. Many of the friends I have known who have tried to do a domestic adoption have really struggled with the fact that often the birth mother is a teen who is trying to find for her child the ‘perfect, leave it to beaver’ childhood that the teen mother herself never had. That often includes church attendance (many of my secular humanist-type friends don’t do that), a SAHM (again, lots of my friends don’t do that), slim, smiling couples. Church attendance and SAHM requirements aren’t dealbreakers, but there are no leave it to beaver households. Yet, there is this need to make yourself look like that.
    I think both ART and adoption are processes that slowly strip yourself of your confidence.
    Finally, I don’t think it’s ‘control freak’-ish to want to reduce the likelihood that your child has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (adopting from Russia), pre and post-natal malnutrition (adopting from China) or ADD/ADHD/LD (domestic adoption in the US). Those are gross generalizations of what challenges will face a child adopted from certain countries, but since almost all agree that parenting is hard work, why make it even harder?

  11. Sandy D. Says:

    Elizabeth Marquardt has posted an apology over at the Family Scholars blog: http://familyscholars.org/?p=6204
    Apparently she thought “dc mom” meant “donor conception mom”.

  12. Elizabeth Says:

    Yup, I was pretty amused by the mistake once she explained it.

  13. Eric Says:

    As an infertile male who together used DI to create our children I constamtly seek out opinion and info regarding the issues my children may or may not face.
    While I don’t regret my children being born nor would I trade them in at this point for biological children of my own I do worry worry about the issues they will face hence my own blogging and desire to learn more.
    I found the Katrina article interesting but less passionate than other pieces I have read. I read many of the resaponses she received and then the online discussion. Many of the responders were pushing their own agendas and that is par for the course.
    I don’t politically the issue of open / anonymous donors will rise to the responses taken in countries like Canada, the UK, or Australia or NZ anytime soon but I do agree that reform is needed and increased discussion so for that matter I was amazed that three articles were run in WAPo at once on this topic.

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