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Single women using donor insemination: Thoughts on the discussion of the latest findings from the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies

29 October 2012
By Susan Imrie and Sophie Zadeh
Researchers, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge
Appeared in BioNews 679
At a meeting last month, professionals, policymakers and academics came together to discuss recent research on the making of child welfare assessments in the context of post-2008 changes to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Researchers from the University of Kent explained their findings to an avid audience, one of which was that single women seeking reproductive assistance raise red flags for clinicians, clinic counsellors, and nursing staff. They relayed that several of the staff interviewed expressed some concern about the fiscal capabilities, social support networks and motivations of women who decide to have a child on their own ((1) and BioNews 673).

This finding became the focus of debate amongst the meeting's participants: did it make sense that single women should raise clinical concerns? Answers were varied, and most reflected participants' ideas about what constitutes acceptable motherhood. Few, however, were underpinned by knowledge of research to date.

Several of the meeting's participants expressed a view of the single woman using donor insemination (DI) as the '40 year old virgin' who, unable to form or sustain a functioning (heterosexual) relationship, makes a rushed, last-ditch attempt to have a child. Research examining the profiles and motivations of single women using DI has consistently found this stereotype to be misrepresentative of the cohort.

Studies have shown that single women take longer than their married counterparts to make the decision to use DI (2) and carefully consider a number of factors in arriving at this decision, reflecting upon their age, emotional maturity, financial capabilities, and future parenting responsibilities before beginning treatment (3). Research has also indicated that many single women have been in one or several long-term relationships prior to clinical treatment (4), and findings from a current study at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, have shown that some single DI mothers have previously been married and/or already have children from a previous relationship.

Preliminary findings from a study looking at the bioethical issues arising from the experiences of single women trying to become pregnant through DI have also suggested that although many women see single motherhood as a temporary state and still hope for a relationship in the future, they stress the importance of not having a child in the wrong relationship. Another study of 27 single DI mothers found that over half would have preferred to have a child within a relationship, but were not content to settle for a relationship with a partner with whom they thought it was unsuitable to have a child (5).

A second suggestion from some discussants was that solo DI mothers do not have the social support necessary to raise a child. However, research has indicated that many single women do not initiate treatment until strong social support networks – comprised of family members and friends – are in place (3). Several stress that while they may be single parents, they certainly do not parent alone, and some mothers who originally took a lone path to parenthood are now in relationships (6).

Other concerns raised by the meeting's participants regarded the ability of single women to parent effectively. Whilst research on parent-child relationships in solo DI mother families is limited, initial findings have indicated that being parented by a single mother who has used DI does not adversely affect children's emotional, social or cognitive development (5). One UK study showed that young children in such families demonstrated fewer emotional and behavioural difficulties than children in two parent families (7), and a study based in the USA found no differences between the psychological adjustment of donor-conceived children raised by single or married mothers (8).

Little is known about child development and parent-child relationships in solo DI mother families as children grow older. However, research on adolescents raised in fatherless families from infancy has painted a positive picture of developmental outcomes (9). Moreover, it is hoped that current research at the Centre for Family Research, focussing on family relationships and child development in families headed by solo DI mothers with children age 4-8, will go some way to address this deficit.

Although this remains and under-researched area, existing studies suggest that single women accessing reproductive assistance do so following a careful decision-making and planning process, and that children's development does not appear to be adversely affected by being raised in this form of family. While it is important to continue to examine outcomes for solo DI mother families, in light of September's meeting it may also be fair to suggest that we think critically about some of the views we may come across more generally in relation to solo DI mothers, and to ensure that these perspectives are grounded in empirical evidence, rather than conjecture.

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