Is the glass half full or half empty? Debating the research on donor offspring: A reply to Blyth and Kramer's critique of 'My Daddy's Name is Donor'
09 August 2010
Elizabeth Marquardt is co-investigator of My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation. She is vice president for family studies at the Institute for American Values in New York City and editor of the blog FamilyScholars.orgAppeared in BioNews 570
With my colleagues, Professor Norval D Glenn of the University of Texas at Austin and Karen Clark, an author who was conceived via anonymous sperm donation in 1966, we sought to probe the identity, kinship, well-being and social justice experiences of young adults conceived through sperm donation. From a web-based panel of more than one million American households we assembled a sample of 485 young adults conceived through sperm donation and comparison groups of 562 young adults who were adopted as infants and 563 raised by their biological parents. Our findings, including a full 'summary of the data' (or what researchers call the 'marginal frequencies') are found in My Daddy's Name is Donor, a 135-page report available at FamilyScholars.org.
Professor Eric Blyth and Wendy Kramer recently responded to our study in a BioNews commentary titled 'My Daddy's Name is Donor: Read With Caution!' (July 19, 2010) I wish to respond to their claim that we have 'misrepresented' and 'distorted' our findings by examining how they support this claim.
Blyth and Kramer summarise selected findings from our work, such as that '65 per cent of donor-conceived participants agree that 'my sperm donor is half of who I am'; 45 per cent agree that 'the circumstances of my conception bother me'; 47 per cent report that they 'think about donor conception at least a few times a week or more often.'' They say that we 'draw from these the exaggerated claim that 'donor offspring experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.''
As far as I can see, Blyth and Kramer have just told us that, in their opinion, finding that between about half to two-thirds of persons conceived through an elective procedure performed on their parents feel that their usually unknown biological father is half of who they are, that they are bothered about the circumstances of their conception, and that as adults they think about how they were conceived several times a week or more often is not much of a problem. We disagree.
They then take issue with how we highlight the issue of payments to donors, including that more than 40 per cent in our study are concerned about the role of money in their conception and in the exchange of sperm and eggs more generally. The issue of money is a not-infrequent topic of concern among donor offspring, as Blyth and Kramer must surely be aware. In fact, in recent weeks I have seen references to it in two sources that are otherwise quite supportive of using donor conception to have children. A publication of the US organisation COLAGE and the movie The Kids are All Right both make clear that feeling disturbed that money changed hands in one's conception is not an uncommon experience for donor offspring.
Blyth and Kramer next point to our findings regarding how many donor offspring feel that no one really understands them, and how many said they would discourage their friend from having a baby via sperm donation. We think it is striking that one quarter of donor offspring strongly agree that no one really understands them, between two and three times as many who were adopted or raised by biological parents. Similarly, we think it is quite striking that 37 per cent of donor offspring would discourage their friend from having a baby the way their mom had them. Blyth and Kramer disagree.
Finally, they say, 'The data are again misrepresented when reporting participants' agreements with various 'expert opinions.'' We found that 36 per cent of donor offspring feel that donor conception can be hard for children, but telling children the truth earlier on makes it easier for them, and 11 per cent feel donor conception is hard for children even when parents tell the children the truth. In other words, we found that 47 per cent or 'about half' of donor offspring have concerns about or serious objections to donor conception even when parents tell the truth. Blyth and Kramer argue that this framing is a 'distortion.' Perhaps they are sensitive to this point because they are among those who feel that donor conception is not a problem so long as it is handled the 'right' way. Speaking personally, that is not my point of view.
Here, I believe, is the primary difference between Blyth and Kramer and ourselves: Currently, the research on donor offspring can be seen as a glass half full or a glass half empty. 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.