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June 17, 2010

by Elizabeth Marquardt

side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar My co-investigators—Norval D. Glenn of the University of Texas at Austin and author Karen Clark (who herself was conceived via anonymous sperm donation in 1966)—found that two-thirds of sperm donor offspring agree "My sperm donor is half of who I am," and as many feel they have a right to know about their sperm donor biological fathers. About half are disturbed that money was involved in their conception. As a group, sperm donor offspring fare worse than their peers raised by biological parents on important outcomes such as depression, delinquency, and substance abuse. More than forty percent of them agree, "It is wrong to deliberately conceive a fatherless child."

While the Catholic church does have teachings on donor insemination (it forbids it) most other denominations have had little to say, thus far, about reproductive technologies, much less about their possible impact on the young people these technologies aid in creating.

About one percent of children in the U.S. today are conceived through sperm donation. All this is quite interesting, you might respond, but how relevant are these findings, really, for my ministry today? To which I have three responses:

1) One percent equals millions of young people. Every person matters. Every story matters.

2) Sperm donation, in practice since at least 1884, is an old-fashioned technology at this point. Egg donation and embryo transfers, perhaps combined with gestational surrogacy, are making the new kids on the block. Scientists have created children with the DNA of three parents. Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy's book, Everything Conceivable,  reports a study showing that ten percent of U.S. fertility clinic directors welcome reproductive cloning as an option for couples who have exhausted all other options. Sperm donor offspring are the leading edge of the Brave New World. What they tell us about their experience, and what we learn about their outcomes, informs what we know not only about the impact of sperm donation but raises a host of urgent questions about other reproductive technologies currently in practice or on the horizon.

3) Although sperm donor conception is not widely practiced, it has rhetorical power in our public debates about marriage and childbearing. In the U.S. today, about 40 percent of children are now born outside of marriage (and these children are at higher risk for poorer outcomes). Women who find themselves pregnant can say, "Why should I keep this guy around, when doctors and lawyers help women to have babies with sperm donors and everybody says that's OK?" Women who elect to get pregnant through sperm donation can say, "What's wrong with having a baby with an anonymous sperm donor? After all, lots of kids are born each year to single moms." Meanwhile, men can ask, quite reasonably, why they are accountable for eighteen years of child support after a one-night stand, but sperm donors can walk into a clinic, deposit sperm, and sign away their paternal rights (and get paid for it!).

Further, these technologies are having an impact on how the next generation is thinking about reproductive technologies and parenthood. One of the more striking findings to come out of our study is how distressed sperm donor offspring are when you ask them about their own experience, but how libertarian their attitudes are, as a group, about reproductive technologies and parenthood more generally. Compared to those raised by adoptive or biological parents, those conceived through sperm donation are much more likely to embrace an unqualified adult right to a child, to say that our laws and policies should support the exchange of sperm or eggs, and a full – and frightening – 64 percent of them agree that reproductive cloning should be available to couples who have exhausted all other options. It appears that adult donor offspring have embraced the positive "script" about donor conception and reproductive technologies, even as the majority of them support an end to anonymous donation of sperm in the U.S., and even as they tell significant, personal stories of loss and struggle.

Who are these young people conceived through sperm donation? What do they have to say about their own experience? What do their stories reveal about fatherhood and marriage? Church leaders who want to confront these questions can find the stories, the data, and a set of nineteen recommendations in our 140 page report, My Daddy's Name is Donor, available as a free download at

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We live complex lives. We strive to sort out priorities that sometimes conflict or seem incompatible. A moral framework is needed to help us understand the reality around us. Our Judeo-Christian heritage provides a framework to help us comprehend the choices we make and the conflicts that arise over them. It is not only the main source of our spiritual values, but also many of the secular values we depend on.

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Elizabeth Marquardt Trans

Elizabeth Marquardt is vice president for family studies at the Institute for American Values in New York City, a nonpartisan think tank focused on children, families, and civil society, and author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (Crown, 2005). She is editor of and co-investigator of My Daddy's Name is Donor, just released by the Commission on Parenthood's Future, reporting on the new study of a large, randomly-drawn sample of adults who were conceived with use of sperm donors. She holds a Master of Divinity and an M.A. in international relations from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in history and women's studies from Wake Forest University, and lives near Chicago with her husband and two children.

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