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December 18, 2006

When the voiceless gain their voice

A college student named Katrina Clark told her story in yesterday's Washington Post: the story of a child born via sperm donation.

I was angry at the idea that where donor conception is concerned, everyone focuses on the "parents" -- the adults who can make choices about their own lives. The recipient gets sympathy for wanting to have a child. The donor gets a guarantee of anonymity and absolution from any responsibility for the offspring of his "donation." As long as these adults are happy, then donor conception is a success, right?

Not so. The children born of these transactions are people, too. Those of us in the first documented generation of donor babies -- conceived in the late 1980s and early '90s, when sperm banks became more common and donor insemination began to flourish -- are coming of age, and we have something to say.

Indeed they do. This is one articulate eighteen-year-old, and without condemning the mother she calls "my hero, my everything," she pleads with both men and women to consider what they're doing when they decide to create a child solely for the purpose of satisfying their own desires:

It's hypocritical of parents and medical professionals to assume that biological roots won't matter to the "products" of the cryobanks' service, when the longing for a biological relationship is what brings customers to the banks in the first place. . . .

My heart went out to those [other donor-conceived kids], especially after I participated in a couple of online groups. When I read some of the mothers' thoughts about their choice for conception, it made me feel degraded to nothing more than a vial of frozen sperm. It seemed to me that most of the mothers and donors give little thought to the feelings of the children who would result from their actions. It's not so much that they're coldhearted as that they don't consider what the children might think once they grow up.

And even though she's "let go of any resentment," Katrina is still dealing with sadness and frustration. Finding her biological father, as excited and happy as it made her, has not been everything she hoped it would be.

After a bit, though, I noticed that [my father's] enthusiasm for our developing relationship seemed to be waning. When I told him of my suspicion, he confirmed that he was tired of "this whole sperm-donor thing." The irony stings me more each time I think of him saying that. The very thing that brought us together was pushing us in opposite directions.

Even though I've only recently come into contact with him, I wouldn't be able to just suck it up if he stopped communicating with me. There's still so much I want to know. I want to know him. I want to know his family. I'm certain he has no idea how big a role he has played in my life despite his absence -- or because of his absence. If I can't be too attached to him as my father, I'll still always be attached to the feeling I now have of having a father.

This article is a must-read if ever there was one, not just for anyone who has ever considered having a child this way, but for anyone who's supported the concept without ever stopping to think of what it might mean to the child. Katrina Clark nails the mentality of a world that believes, in so many different areas, that making the adults happy is all that matters and that the children will automatically follow suit. If the adults don't see the need for a father in a child's life, then the child won't either, right? Of course not, because we're all culturally conditioned to know what normal is or isn't. Any family structure will do as long as there's lots of love. Or so we thought.

For so long, the children in these situations have been without a voice, unable to confirm or deny those complacent assumptions. Now that they're starting to speak up, we who bear so much responsibility for what they've gone through had better be ready to listen.

Update: Katrina Clark participated in an online chat today about her article. I found it sobering and disheartening to see the number of readers who lambasted her for sharing her feelings about her conception: be happy with what you got, you could have grown up with a drunk or an abusive father, "none of us asks to be born," "most nuclear families are not the Waltons," you're a lot better off than many, and more along the same lines. Is that really the best we can do? No father is better than the possibility of an imperfect father? It looks like we're not ready to listen to the reality of what we've done, after all.

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I too found Katrina's story intruiging, Gina, although I found it more a commentary on the outcome of the cavalier "father optional" attitude found so often in today's culture than on the specific sperm-donor-originated subset of those affected. It never ceases to boggle the mind when people willingly choose to start out as single parents -- no divorce, no rape, no death, no "oops" involved. Simply that I want a child, and believe I can raise it myself.

Katrina rightly points out the selfishness and shortsightedness of this mindset. I fear, though, that she's keeping herself from asking the same pointed questions of her own mother. Her mother is spoken of heroically, as a "trailblazer for a new offshoot of the women's movement", and given credit for passing to Katrina her "feminist perspective." Yet it was this very perspective, it would seem, that led her to make the choice she made. Katrina deplores this choice in terms personal (to herself) and general (to the world), but doesn't seem to indicate that she's yet connected the dots back to the viewpoint that encouraged it.

Gina Dalfonzo

That was the same angle I found interesting, Joel, although I may not have made it as clear as I intended. What's true of Katrina's situation would also hold true in any situation that's "father optional" (or "mother optional").

I also see the truth of what you're saying about her mother, but it can't be easy for a kid to criticize -- especially in such a public forum -- the mother she loves, who also happens to be the only parent who's ever been 100 percent committed to her. Being so close to someone does tend to obscure our view sometimes, especially when we're still teenagers. One day she may connect the dots, but, I'd venture, she'll try to do it in a way that doesn't hurt the person who's so dear to her. There's something to be said for that.


You're absolutely right; I neglected to tack on an "understandably so." I used the words "I fear" quite specifically, because an inconsistent position involving one's loved ones can become uncomfortable rather quickly. My hope would be that she and her mother would find a way together to face the way that her current take on things reflects on their viewpoint, and have the courage to make adjustments and move forward.

Then again, perhaps (hopefully?) they've already had those conversations and this piece was an outgrowth of that introspection.

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