The problem of sperm donation is not the highest of national priorities at the moment. Political parties usually do not have it featuring in their agendas. But it is a very important issue for at least one group: those children conceived by such a means.
Artificial insemination by donor (AID) and numerous other methods that have recently been developed mean that we now have quite a few (36 at last count) ways to bring a child into the world, beside the more usual – and fun – manner. This has many implications for various public policy debates. For example, a report was just tabled in Victoria arguing that Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) such as IVF be fully available for single women and lesbians.
Of course such radical recommendations would hardly have been possible, let alone conceivable (no pun intended) just a few short decades ago before the development of such technologies. But with the new biotechnologies rushing headlong into various brave new worlds, we now have to give serious attention to the ethical and social implications of such breakthroughs.
And with much of this new technology, the focus has been almost exclusively on the wants and desires of adults, while almost entirely overlooking the rights and interests of the child. We seldom ask how children so brought into the world are doing. As long as we can keep adults happy, we seem to think we can treat children as mere commodities and playthings.
Kay S. Hymowitz, writing in the Spring 2007 City Journal raises a number of questions that need answers in the debate about artificial insemination (AI) and how it affects children. The negative consequences are many, she argues, but in short, AI begets children without paternity, with troubling cultural and legal consequences.
She begins with an American court case, and the wisdom of Solomon needed to decide how to proceed: “An unmarried woman in her early thirties decided that she wanted a child and asked a friend to be a sperm donor. He agreed, one thing led to another, which led to a syringe of his sperm, which led to the birth of twins. The mother says that she always intended to raise the kids alone and never wanted the friend involved in their lives. The donor says that he planned to be the twins’ father in name and practice. There is no written contract. What does the contemporary Solomon do?”
“Well, in a Kansas trial court, Solomon rules that without a contract the twins have no father. The man who provided half of the children’s genetic material has no more relationship to them than does the taxi driver who rushed their mother to the hospital when she went into labor. Now, assuming that the supreme court upholds the decision, the state of Kansas can celebrate adding two more fatherless children to its population, and Mom can rejoice by dressing her twins in bibs – available over the Internet – proudly announcing: my daddy’s name is donor.”
Many more such cases can be produced. As mentioned, we have rushed into areas where the gods have feared to tread. We have simply assumed that if science can do something, it should do it. But there are many moral and social issues that must be addressed here. The war on fatherhood, and the impact on the child – both connected – are two crucial concerns here.
Says Hymowitz, “You’d think that we had enough problems keeping fathers around in this country, what with out-of-wedlock births (over a third of all children are born to unmarried women, and, in most cases, the fathers will fade from the picture) and divorce (the average divorced dad sees his kids less often than he takes his car in for an oil change). But these days, American fatherhood has yet another hostile force to contend with: artificial insemination. This may sound a tad overheated. After all, AI has been around, by some accounts, for over a century. And the number of kids born through the procedure each year, though steadily growing, remains quite small relative to the millions of babies conceived, as we can now say completely without irony, the old-fashioned way.”
“But aided by a lucrative sperm-bank service industry, an increasingly unmarried consumer base, a legal profession and judiciary geared toward seeing relationships through a contractual lens, and a growing cultural preference for individual choice without limits, AI is advancing a cause once celebrated only in the most obscure radical journals: the dad-free family. There are multiple ironies in this unfolding revolution, not least that the technology that allows women to have a family without men promotes the very male carelessness that leads a lot of women to become single mothers in the first place. And fatherless families are a delicate proposition, as AI families are discovering, since all the scientists’ technology and all the lawyerly contracts can’t take human nature out of human reproduction.”
Shopping for sperm has not only become big business, but it has resulted in a lot of fatherless kids. “Most fertility specialists – except perhaps the Nobel factory’s, whose ambition was to improve the race – probably never imagined themselves as building a new family order. They just believed that they were helping the unfortunate, a view that the joyful maternal testimonials filling sperm-bank websites support. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether spreading happiness – as opposed to the entirely different matter of healing the sick – automatically validates artificial insemination’s almost entirely unregulated march into the mainstream of American life.”
Indeed, just what is a family nowadays? “With a growing number of AI cases involving single women and lesbian couples, the pretense of the donor’s nonexistence is no longer tenable, since there’s no father around. The issues surrounding the practice have grown vastly more complicated: Can a sperm donor be a father? Can his mother be a grandmother? Can a child conceived through AI inherit property from her biological father? Can a child have two mothers and no father? How about two mothers and a father? Can the lesbian partner of a biological mother have custody rights if the couple breaks up? Can she be required to pay child support? And, again, who are the grandparents?”
And what about the children themselves who may never know who their fathers are? “On websites, unhappy donor kids are beginning to speak up. ‘I believe that it is a tragic turn for our society to celebrate fathers who intentionally disconnect themselves from their children,’ writes the proprietor of Whosedaughter.com. ‘I’m 18 and for most of my life, I haven’t known half my origins,’ Katrina Clark wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this past fall. Donor conception has always been about making adults happy, not children, she continued. As a child, she found herself jealous of a friend whose parents were divorced; at least the girl got to visit her father.”
Men too suffer, as they increasingly come to be seen as redundant and unnecessary. “And what do the missing men – the donor/fathers – make of all this? Sperm bankers like to describe anonymous donors (who in reality are sperm sellers, it’s important to remember) as altruists, and many of these men probably do believe that they’re doing good deeds. But they’re a little like the socialist who loves humanity but hates individual people. The donors are willing to perform acts of charity for women they’ve never met. But they don’t want anything to do with what we used to call their own flesh and blood.”
“Ultimately, AI reinforces the worst that women fear in men. Think of all the complaints you hear: men can’t commit, they’re irresponsible, they’re insensitive, they don’t take care of the kids. By going to a sperm bank, women are unwittingly paying men to be exactly what they object to. Many donors are college students – some sperm banks accept donors as young as 18 – responding to ads like the Fairfax Cryobank’s: ‘Why not do it for money?’”
She continues, “The very premise of AI is that, apart from their liquid DNA, we can will men out of children’s lives. Insofar as their Y chromosome is significant, they are completely interchangeable with other ‘male role models.’ To produce and rear the next generation, women are still a vital presence – at least until artificial wombs become part of the artificial-reproduction toolbox. But men?”
It seems this whole mess is just getting messier, and nations are struggling as to how best proceed: “Recognizing that it’s probably not a good idea for society to erect a wall between children and their fathers – and perhaps also not a good idea to encourage men to disown their kids – several Western countries have banned anonymous donation. Canada has made it illegal to pay someone for sperm. In Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and now Britain, donors must agree to be identified to their children once they reach 18. Unsurprisingly, the donor pool is drying up fast in some of these locales. Even countries with liberal laws on same-sex relationships, such as France, Iceland, and Norway, have banned AI (and, in some cases, adoption) for gays and singles. The contradiction is only superficial, a consequence of the way that we frame family making as primarily about adult rights and ‘intentionality.’ What these European laws suggest is that you can support gay relationships, yet still think that it’s best for kids to grow up with a mother and father, preferably their own.”
Concludes Hymowitz: “It would be a good idea for Americans likewise to abolish anonymous sperm donation. But let’s not kid ourselves that such a ban would also put an end either to fatherlessness or to male fecklessness, both nourished by our cultural predilection for individual choice unconstrained by tradition, the needs of children, or nature itself. To modify that preference, we’ll need something much more radical than government regulation.”
As Victoria and other Australian states introduce legislation and recommendations which will further minimise fatherhood, destabilise societies, and harm our children, we need to sit back, slow down and think carefully about the frightening new worlds we have been unleashing through the new biotechnologies.