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Is intentional parenthood good for children?

7 November 2011
Appeared in BioNews 632
In today's debates about the family a new phrase can often be heard: 'intentional parenthood'. The term appears to have originated in the 1990s to resolve disputed surrogacy or lesbian parenting family law cases. It has since been embraced broadly within family law, in public discussion about reproduction, and by advocates of family diversity. Intentional parenthood, proponents say, is good for children. Intention makes a wanted child. Anyone can be an intentional parent – straight, gay, married, partnered, or single (1).

The idea's roots go deeper. The notion of planning pregnancies is at least as old as Margaret Sanger's efforts to make contraceptives legal at the turn of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, 'every child a wanted child' has long been a slogan of the pro-choice and abortion rights movements. In current discussions about lesbian and gay parenting the idea is resurfacing, with leaders often proudly claiming that 'none of our children are accidents' (1). Overall, it seems to make sense that children who are wanted at the outset will have a better shot at becoming happy, healthy young people.

But probe further and you will find that at least one group of young people are quite troubled by the deliberateness, or intent, with which they were separated from their biological parent. Last year, colleagues and I released a study of young adults conceived through sperm donation. From a panel of more than one million US households we surveyed 485 young adults who were sperm donor offspring: 562 who were adopted, and 563 who were raised by their biological parents (2).

In a sense, our study can be seen as an inquiry into whether, and how, being intended truly helps children. The first group in our study – the donor offspring – is a sample of entirely planned, intended, and presumably fiercely wanted children. The other two groups are more mixed. We know that in the USA today about half of pregnancies are unintended, babies who came about as a result of messy, often uncontracepted sex, and among them some are adopted, some raised by their biological parents.

So what did our study show? Does being explicitly intended spell terrific child outcomes, or at least better outcomes than for children conceived in other ways? Actually, no – quite the opposite. As a group, the donor offspring were faring the worst. Compared to those who were adopted, they were hurting more, more confused, and felt more isolated from their families. Compared to those raised by their biological parents, significantly more suffered from addiction, delinquency, and depression (2).

These findings are echoed in stories from around the world. Many of the narratives found at the global story-telling project evoke the pain of deliberate separation from biological parents. Or take what Damian Adams, an Australian donor conceived adult, says about the difference between adoption and donor conception: 'The key and most important difference is intent'. Adoption, Adams writes, 'is used as a last resort to ameliorate, but not solve, the tragedy of an existing child whose biological parents are unable for whatever reason to care for it'. In contrast, with donor conception 'the intent is to separate and deprive the child of one or both biological connections', even before the child is conceived (3).

Let me note here that few donor-offspring activists single out gay and lesbian parents as a particular concern. My impression is that such activists generally fall into two camps: either they feel that donor conception should be available to pretty much anyone, so long as protections for the child's right to know the identity of both parents are put in place; or they believe that donor conception is not okay and they are against anyone – gay, straight, married, or not – using it. But because some of today's most vocal proponents of intentional parenthood are found among gay and lesbian leaders and their family law supporters, the debate about how much intentional parenthood matters cannot help but get entangled in the debate about gay- and lesbian-headed families.

For now, the main point is this: the value of intentional parenthood is not a settled question, but rather a hotly contested one. With growing numbers of children being deliberately denied a relationship with at least one of their parents, the stories of today's donor conceived adults are just the tip of the iceberg.

1) Elizabeth Marquardt (2011) One Parent or Five: A Global Look at Today’s New Intentional Families
The Institute for American Values |  09/11
2) Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval D. Glenn, and Karen Clark, My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation
Institute for American Values |  05/11
3) Damian Adams, My Daddy’s Name Is Adoption—NOT!
Donor Conceived Perspectives: Voices of the Offspring (blog), |  19 May 2011
24 June 2013 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
Children born with the help of sperm or egg donation or via surrogacy are well-adjusted at the age of ten, a study says...
26 November 2012 - by Sarah Norcross 
Gamete donation is big business at the Fertility Show. Why do clinics from far and wide pay thousands of pounds to exhibit in London? The simple answer is to make money. But why come to the UK? Because in the UK there is a shortage of gamete donors, or at least a perceived shortage, that's why...
23 January 2012 - by Kate Brian 
I was delighted that Rachel Pepa's review of my book 'Precious Babies' concluded that it had much to recommend it as a guide to having children after fertility problems as that's exactly what the book is intended to be. I wasn't surprised that she didn't feel it addressed her issues as a donor-conceived adult because the book is not about donor conception or adults...
16 January 2012 - by Rachel Pepa 
As an informal guide to having children after fertility problems, Precious Babies has much to recommend it. There is, however, an omission which, as a donor conceived (DC) person, I found particularly troublesome - the book is entirely devoid of DC voices...
14 November 2011 - by Susan Kane 
I have no doubt that Elizabeth Marquardt's report reflects the feelings of the donor-conceived people that she studied. However, since true scientific study of donor-conceived people is not currently possible, her claims must be qualified....
31 October 2011 - by Professor Eric Blyth 
'One Parent or Five: A global look at today's new intentional families' is the latest report from the Commission on Parenthood's Future (1). Authored by 'scholar Elizabeth Marquardt, a recognized family expert', it claims to offer 'the first-ever systematic critique of the concept of intentional parenthood [by] providing a global tour of today's new intentional families...
16 May 2011 - by Vince Londini 
On November 2, 2010, Elizabeth Marquardt testified before the Australian Senate. Her remarks included this statement: 'But I also want to make clear that - even with openness - the problems [allegations that donor-conceived children are more prone to social and legal trouble] do not completely go away. There seems to be something else about knowing that the person who raised you also deliberately denied you your other parent before you were even born'...
9 July 2010 - by Professor Eric Blyth and Wendy Kramer 
The 'My Daddy's Name Is Donor' report is co-authored by Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Institute for American Values (IAV)'s Center for Marriage and Families, who produced IAV's previous report highly critical of donor conception (1), Norval D. Glenn, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Karen Clark, of, and published by the Commission on Parenthood's Future, a New York-based think tank, in association with the IAV, in May 2010...
10 December 2007 - by MacKenna Roberts 
By Mackenna Roberts: A UK man has launched an unprecedented legal challenge to not be recognised as the legal parent of two children conceived through the use of his sperm in a DIY artificial insemination procedure, performed by his friend and her girlfriend. Andy Bathie hopes to avoid paying the...
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