The first time I considered the ethics of assisted reproduction I was five years old, and in my room, folding laundry with my mom. She told me that my dad was not my biological father. My biological father was an anonymous sperm donor, whom we knew nothing about and would never be able to locate. I was told three elusive facts about him: he had blond hair, blue eyes, and a college degree.
The bioethical debate on third-party reproduction has been a chore forced upon me. I can’t seem to shake it—it’s a shadow that follows me wherever I go. When I was eight, my mom divorced her first husband—my original dad—and I haven’t seen or spoken to him since. She quickly remarried.
I remember knowing deep down that it had something to do with donor conception when they told me that my “dad” no longer wanted custody of me. For years, I repeated in my head, He didn’t want you—He didn’t want you—He didn’t want you. Sometimes, “He” was in reference to my former dad. Sometimes, “He” was in reference to my sperm-donor father.
During my mom’s second marriage, we packed up and moved to Cupertino, California. My older sister was adopted from Korea, so it made sense to my (Caucasian) parents that we should attend the most Chinese school district in North America. In some of my classes, I was one of maybe two white kids. The first real friend I made was a Russian girl named Svetlana. I’ve since found out that my biological father was/is Polish, so in hindsight, I am certain we gravitated towards each other because of our ethnic similarities. As is natural with best friends, I opened up to her about my family—and the fact that I was donor conceived. As is also natural with best friends that age, we got upset with each other over something, and she proceeded to tell the entire school that I was a test-tube baby. Much humiliation and indignation followed. To her credit, she later apologized
My senior year of high school I opted to go to a misfit alternative educational program that allowed me to attend classes at our local community college. This rescued me from the rumor mill and the omnipresent unwanted attention I earned from behaviors such as showing up to class drunk, hooking up with any boy who would spend 20 minutes or more with me, and so on.
In my English 1A class, we read and studied that classic work of literature, Brave New World. If you’ve read it, you might recall that human reproduction is no longer accomplished sexually, but via assembly line. Nobody has a mother—such antiquities are embarrassing. Aldous Huxley made a clear point: to remove human reproduction from sexuality is dehumanizing.
I was 17 during this particular class and surrounded by students who were older than me. I became extremely uncomfortable during the dissection of this book because I was confused by the messages, and especially confused by what it meant about me. Some of my classmates were making comments that pointed toward a fear of the people who were conceived without sex as if it were an “us against them” question. Humans vs. Non-humans. And I became angry.
During one exchange where this fear-of-the-non-humans language was bubbling, I raised my hand and stated in clear terms, “I was conceived without sex, and this conversation makes me uncomfortable.” The room grew silent. A pregnant moment passed until one guy said, “Well, she seems like a decent and normal person so maybe it’s not so bad.”
Donor-conceived people like me are fully human. Don’t make us shed blood and write poems to prove it.
A few years later, I found myself visiting London, where I attended a film screening of the documentary Donor Unknown. In the film, JoEllen Marsh meets her father and several of her half-siblings for the first time. Her father, “Donor 150”—whose real name is Geoffrey—had grown up to be an unmarried beach bum, living in a tattered RV in a parking lot in Venice Beach.
I was a singer at the time or trying to be, so I was in London to release an EP with my band. My female guitarist came with me to the screening, along with some local donor-conceived people I knew. Most were female, but two were males. One of the young men was raised in an intact marriage and found out as an adult that his dad wasn’t his biological father. The other young man was raised by a single mom by choice, and by the age of 24 had been in jail four times. When he discovered that we were American, this young man—let’s call him Brian—shared that he was planning a trip to Philadelphia to hook-up with a girl, something that would come up later than night.
The theater was full of adult and middle-aged women, who were clearly interested in sperm donation or had already used it to have their kids. Members of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority were given microphones and seemed completely celebratory of sperm donation as a practice—never mind the dissonance clearly displayed by the donor offspring in the film. One woman took the microphone and stated, “Thank you so much—the kids seem so normal—this really gives me the confidence I need to move forward as a single mom.”
And at that moment, I stood up and screamed at her.
I forget exactly what I said. It was something along the lines of, “You cannot just throw a child’s father in the trash!” She recoiled from me, obviously perplexed by my response.
After years of reflection and repeated episodes like this, reading books like Never Let Me Go and others, my sense is that the fear some people have regarding reproductive technologies is that the humans produced by them will not turn out to be truly human. The wanna-be single-mom in the theater was pleasantly surprised that the kids in the film grew up to be actual human beings. My classmates in English 1A were shocked that I appeared to be an actual human being despite being conceived without sex. My former best friend alerted our fellow classmates that an imposter human lived and lurked among them.
This fallacy is something worth fighting against. Donor-conceived people like me are fully human. Don’t make us shed blood and write poems to prove it.
Humans need their mothers and fathers
That said, it’s because we are fully human that we suffer from fatherlessness in many of the same ways that traditionally conceived children do. A 2010 study of 495 adults who were conceived through sperm donation, “My Daddy’s Name is Donor,” found that “young adults conceived through sperm donation are hurting more, are more confused, and feel more isolated from their families.” The study also found that donor-conceived adults “fare worse than their peers raised by biological parents on important outcomes such as depression, delinquency, and substance abuse.” Furthermore, nearly half of the donor-conceived adults in the study said that seeing their friends with their biological mom and dad made them “feel sad,” and 65 percent agreed, “My sperm donor is half of who I am.”
Remember Brian? The young donor-conceived man in London who had been to jail four times before age 24? After the film, there was a lot of discussion about why I had screamed at the woman and lost my marbles. Those of us who were donor-conceived (along with my guitarist) had formed a circle outside the theater and were trying to make sense of what we had just seen. I was curious whether boys responded differently than girls to being donor-conceived. So I asked Brian what it was like for him, and what he thought of the movie. He had a hard time articulating himself.
“A f—ing beach bum,” he said. “Why the f— did they choose to film a bum? It makes me hate Californians.”
“Why? I’m from California.” I said defensively.
“Yeah, well you’re a sheep just like the rest of ‘em,” he told me.
My memory fails me for the finer details, but less than one minute later, he was pinning me and my guitarist against a brick wall, and spitting in our faces. Unfortunately, my guitarist said something about his anticipated trip to Philadelphia to “meet” a girl as basically being a type of sperm donation, and Brian blew a fuse. We literally ran away from the scene to avoid getting beat up.
That incident taught me something about shame.
When we’re ashamed of who we are and where we come from, we either withdraw and isolate ourselves, or we lash out against the person(s) who trigger or remind us of that shame. An American donor-conceived man once shared with me that on the night he discovered who his sperm donor father was, he spent the night in jail for domestic violence.
Every human being has one biological mother and one biological father. If one or both parents is not there for whatever reason, we naturally ask, Why not? Is the answer humiliating? Mine was absent because he thought $75 and freedom from responsibility was more important than a relationship with me. For other fatherless kids, they might observe that getting high, or sleeping around, or finding happiness with someone else was more important to their missing parent.
When answering the oh-so-important-for-identity question, Where do I come from? Is that answer humiliating? Some of us come from slaves. Others come from criminals. And some of us come from—sperm donor beach bums. People behave better when they respect themselves. And it’s easier to do that when we can respect the people we come from. I think that might be why Brian nearly beat us up that night. Perhaps we stirred up his shame.
All Fathers Matter
The most popular American TV mini-series of all time, “Roots,” explored the importance of genealogy and of knowing where you come from. Its writer, Alex Haley, also penned the memoirs of Malcolm X, and black Americans exalted the book and mini-series because it profiled their shared heritage. A historical exploration led back all the way to Gambia, where Haley’s ancestors were warriors. And it’s clear in Haley’s writing, that the discovery of this warrior bloodline is redemptive and satisfying. To be from a warrior rather than a slave is important in ridding oneself of toxic shame.
The mistake the American public is making when it comes to reproductive technologies is that 1) too many people need to be convinced of the full humanity of those conceived via donor conception or IVF, and 2) too many underestimate how much children need to know and be known by their natural mother and father.
If Brave New World made you shudder and the baby marketplace that is third-party reproduction gives you the creeps, it might be your gut telling you there’s something wrong with it. But the problem is not the existence of the child—we are fully human.
In my view, third-party reproduction is not a new way to create families; it’s a new way to rip them apart. Like slavery, there are many profiteers in the infertility business making large sums of cash taking children away from their natural parents. The problems of toxic shame, anger, and poverty will compound. The fertility community will be perplexed. “Why are these kids so angry?” they’ll ask.
My answer, born from my own experience and the experiences of other donor-conceived children, is simple: “Because you obliterated our fathers”
Alana Newman is the director of the Coalition Against Reproductive Trafficking and founder of The Anonymous Us Project—an online story collective for anyone whose life has been affected by donor conception or surrogacy. The second volume of 100+ stories from the front lines of third party reproduction is now available as an ebook.