My Daddy’s Name is ‘Donor’

First published at on June 4, 2010

In our public debates over marriage equality, Glenn Stanton often holds up a picture, taken from a lesbian parenting website, of a small child wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “My Daddy’s Name is Donor.”

The line usually elicits a laugh from the audience, prompting Glenn to launch into his “Except it isn’t funny” speech.

I’m inclined to agree with him.

It’s not that I oppose reproductive technology or sperm donation per se. And I certainly don’t think that our marriage rights should hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use sperm banks are heterosexual; most lesbians and gays never use sperm banks, and most sperm banks don’t restrict their use to married couples.

It’s that I think that the creation of new life is a serious matter—about as serious as matters get—and I don’t like reducing moral complexities to tacky t-shirt slogans.

Which is why I was both intrigued and ultimately disappointed by a report released May 31 by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future at the Institute for American Values, entitled “My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation.”

Intrigued, because donor conception’s effects are well worth studying, and the report contains useful data.

Disappointed, because the report’s interpretations are exceedingly biased, at times announcing conclusions that seem the opposite of what the data imply.

For example, in its summary of “Fifteen Major Findings,” number one is that donor offspring “experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.” But the survey never included any questions with the words “profound struggles.” Rather, the researchers base this finding on the fact that 65% of donor offspring agree that “My sperm donor is half of who I am;” 45% agree that “The circumstances of my conception bother me;” and nearly half report that they think about donor conception at least a few times a week.

Do these answers indicate “profound struggles” for most donor offspring? I doubt it, especially when compared to the rest of the data.

Buried down at number eleven, we learn that well over half (61%) of donor offspring favor the practice of donor conception.

Even more telling, roughly three-quarters agree with the statements that “Our society should encourage people to donate their sperm or eggs to other people who want them;” “I think every person has a right to a child;” “Health insurance plans and government policies should make it easier for people to have babies with donated sperm or eggs;” and “Artificial reproductive technologies are good for children because the children are wanted.” These percentages are substantially higher than those for adoptees or children of biological parents.

Examining the raw data, we also learn that 56% of donor offspring would not discourage a friend from using a sperm donor to have a baby, and fewer than half (48%) agree that it is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child. Moreover, donor offspring are far more likely than others to become donors themselves.

And when asked how they feel about being donor-conceived, fewer than 10% of adult donor offspring chose available negative options such as “lonely,” “abandoned,” “angry,” and “freak of nature,” whereas 43% chose “not a big deal.” (Multiple answers were possible for this question.) Less than 1% chose “depressed.”

Taken together, such data do not suggest the overall negative picture that the authors and promoters of the study are spinning. Quite the contrary.

The researchers’ bias against these technologies comes out in the very first paragraph. The study’s narrative begins,

“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.”

Um, no—unless we’re being really sloppy about what “this event” refers to. Chloroforming a woman without her consent and secretly impregnating her with sperm from a medical student (which is what the physician did in the 1884 case) is not the same—morally or legally—as consensual use of reproductive technology, whatever reasonable concerns we might have about the latter.

The good news is that the data from the study may be worthwhile even if the researchers’ spin is not.

The bad news is that the spin is likely to eclipse the data—and to provide more fodder to those who want to scapegoat lesbians and gays in the culture wars.