Donor Conception Survey

Not Donor Conception! Run for the Hills!

Well, I did it. Sort of. When I posted briefly about the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” report by the no-really-we’re-not-anti-GLBT Institute for American Values last month, Bionic Baby Mama asked that I please take a look at the report because she had and she wanted someone else’s opinion. So now I have, but only sort-of (as I’ll explain). I feel like I should put in one of those trigger warnings here — if you are vulnerable to people judging your family and you used donor conception, you might want to stop reading now and go to a happy place; I promise you and your kids will be fine — just read the COLAGE DI guide (even if you aren’t queer).

First of all, I think you can learn a lot about the report from the first 1.5 paragraphs of the executive summary:

In 1884, a Philadelphia physician put his female patient to sleep
and inseminated her with sperm from a man who was not her
husband. The patient became pregnant and bore a child she
believed was the couple’s biological offspring.

Today, this event occurs every day around the world with the willing
consent of women and with the involvement of millions of physicians,
technicians, cryoscientists, and accountants.

This is a pretty inflammatory way to start a report, and I think it tells you what you need to know about how the study views donor insemination — the authors oppose it. Author Elizabeth Marquant said as much in her response to some criticism published in BioNews:

Researchers like Blyth and Kramer stress how many donor offspring appear to be doing at well. We stress how many donor offspring do not appear to be doing well. In our opinion, an elective procedure used to treat one person’s medical or social issue, which has the most direct effects on another, entirely different person who is, at the time, unable to speak for him or herself or consent to treatment, should be held to the rigorous ethical test of asking, ‘Is anyone harmed at all’? In the case of donor conception, our study and ample other work is showing that indeed the resulting persons can be harmed by this practice.

So I finally decided I needed to read the study, but after reading the first few paragraphs of the executive summary I could tell this was going to be some poisonous writing. That’s when I fast-forwarded to the end, where I read each of the questions and the spread of answers and also looked some at the author’s graphs.

Read this way, I found the survey quite interesting. Responses from people who were donor-conceived, adopted, and raised by biological parents are separated from each other so you can see how the three groups compare. Note that “donor-conceived” really means conceived through the use of donor sperm as people conceived using donor eggs were not included.

Many of the questions are responses are very interesting. For instance, if you look at the question, “Our society should encourage people to donate their sperm or eggs to other people who want them,” among people raised by bio parents, 42% agree either somewhat or strongly, 50% agree among adoptees, and 73% agree among the donor-conceived. So donor-conceived people seem to be much more in support of gamete donation. In fact, according to the survey 20% of donor-conceived people have themselves donated gametes or been a surrogate, compared to just 1% of bio-kids or adoptees.

Contrast this with responses to the question, “It is wrong for people to provide their
sperm or eggs for a fee to others who wish to have children.” Here 69% of people raised by bio-parents and 68% of adoptees disagree (either strongly or somewhat — this group thinks it’s OK to donate gametes for money), but just 53% of donor-conceived people disagree. So more donor-conceived people think gamete donation should be encouraged, but lots of them don’t want gametes sold to would-be-parents. As a person who bought sperm for the purpose of conceiving a child, I find this very interesting and I’m not entirely sure what I think. On the one hand, I find myself increasingly troubled by money changing hands in gamete “donation,” but on the other hand I wonder how else families like mine are supposed to find sperm! If you look at the question “It bothers me that money was exchanged in order to conceive me,” you’ll note that 44% of donor-conceived people agree and 48% disagree. I think that points to a conflict parents of the donor-conceived need to listen to, whether or not we agree ourselves.

Some questions got right at what I imagine is difficult for the donor-conceived. “It hurts when I hear other people talk about their genealogical background” — 29% of adoptees and 53% of donor-conceived people agree (people raised by bio-parents weren’t included in report on this question, which I think is a mistake — I’d love to know those baseline numbers). That doesn’t really surprise me at all, and I think it’s good for me to keep in mind when talking to my kids. Or the 70% of the donor-conceived who agree with “I f ind myself wondering what my sperm donor’s family is like.” That doesn’t really surprise me either, but it’s good to keep in mind as is the 71% who agreed with “I sometimes wonder if my sperm donor’s parents would want to know me.” As much as I’ve been thinking about donor issues these days that honestly never occurred to me. Then there’s the 48% of the donor-conceived (and just 19% of adoptees) that agree with “When I see friends with their biological fathers and mothers, it makes me feel sad.” This is one of the many places where I’d love to see research done by researchers supportive of donor-conception that included followup. Among those that agreed, what was it that made them sad? How often are they sad about it?

One answer that I think we all need to pay attention to is the 53% that agreed that “I have worried that if I try to get more information about or have a relationship with my
sperm donor, my mother and /or the father who raised me would feel angry or hurt.” That’s a high number and I really think we need to find a way to let our kids off the hook on this point.

I also think we need to listen to the 46% (45% of adoptees) who agreed with “Growing up, I sometimes felt like an outsider in my own home.” Here we have baseline data: 32% of people who were raised by bio-parents agree with that statement. Again I wonder why and I wonder exactly who feels this way — children of lesbians? Children of straight couples? People who were raised in a home that included both bio and non-bio children?

In talking about donor conception, the survey asked donor-conceived people were or weren’t told about their conception. The majority (59%) said “My parent(s) were always open with me about how I was conceived.” A minority were intentionally told by their parents either before age 12 (7%) or after age 12 (9%). Some (20%) said, “My parent(s) kept the fact of my donor conception a secret – I only learned in an accidental or
unplanned way.”

So some of the questions were interesting, but others were poorly worded, leading, or bizarre. Like what are we supposed to make of the question, “Reproductive cloning should be offered to people who don’t have any other way to have a baby,” since that’s not currently a possibility and I’m not sure what it has to do with gamete donation? Then there’s questions like, “It is wrong to deliberately conceive a fatherless child” — I can’t help but think there’s a non-offensive, non-leading way to get the same information. And there were questions on “I worry that my mother might have lied to me about important matters when I was growing up” (and one for fathers). I think I understand the reasoning for asking the question, but I can’t trust any of the answers because of the number of donor-conceived people who would likely find the question confusing (and I personally find the wording somewhat offensive). What is meant by mother (or father)? For instance if my daughter were to grow up and take this survey she wouldn’t be able to answer either question without confusion — she has two moms and won’t have known a father.

Finally, we have a question about people’s opinion about whether donor-conception is OK for kids and how those kids should be told. Participants where asked which of the following they agreed with: “Donor conception is fine for children so long as parents tell children the truth about their conception from an early age” (note 44% of the donor-conceived agreed) or “Donor conception can be hard for children, but telling children the truth early on makes it easier for the children” (36% of donor-conceived agreed) or “Donor conception is hard for children even if their parents tell them the truth” (11% agreed). The study authors concluded from this on p. 47: “About half of donor offspring have concerns about or serious objections to donor conception itself, even when parents tell their children the truth.” I would personally agree with the second statement and I don’t have objections to donor conception!

Finally, I’ll briefly talk about the most “damning” aspect of the study, which is a group of questions about mental health problems, substance abuse, and trouble with the law. In each case adoptees and donor-conceived people experienced these things at a higher rate that people raised by bio-parents. The differences in rates of medication for depression or other mental health problems are fairly small, but for substance abuse and trouble with the law the rates are almost double (11% among people raised by bio-parents and 21% among the donor-conceived). I’m bothered by this and I’d love to see some good follow-up research that would attempt to understand these results. The survey certainly made a big deal of it, but I honestly found it to be one of the least interesting and useful things in the study, since a survey like this can offer no real explanations or understanding at all. I certainly don’t think these responses can be seen as a smoking gun that proves donor conception hurts the donor-conceived.

So that’s it, but I just scratched the surface. There are a lot of interesting questions here, and some of them are even broken down according to age and household type (lesbian couple, hetero couple, single parents). No breakdown is done by type of donor (known, anonymous, or ID-release) which makes the result somewhat hard to use for thinking about different situations. If you want to read more, I suggest opening the PDF and skipping down to page 82 (the link above should do that authomatically), where the tables and figures start. You may find the methodology section after than interesting as well. Since this isn’t what I would call “real research” (not peer-reviewed, self-published, not even participating in an ethical review), I don’t think it’s important to pay much attention to the first 81 pages of bigotry.

When I see friends with
their biological fathers
and mothers, it makes
me feel sad.