The increasing number of children born through sperm donation, and the fact that many of those children are just now reaching adulthood, is leading to a revolution in the way we define families. A Tuesday Post story examined how children conceived this way are beginning to search for the donors.
But what do the donors think? How much responsibility do they feel? A new book is providing some answers. “Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm,” (University of California Press, September 2011) by Rene Almeling, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Yale University, provides insights into the relationships between donors, recipients and the children conceived. Over fours years, Almeling studied six sperm banks and interviewed their founders and staffers. She also interviewed 40 donors.
One of the fascinating aspects of Almeling’s research is that she explored how donors, both egg and sperm, perceive their own roles in a family. She found that, despite conventional wisdom, it’s the male donors who feel a stronger connection.
“One of the most surprising things I found was that sperm donors have a straightforward view of themselves as fathers, while egg donors insist they are not mothers,” she wrote me in an e-mail conversation we had about her book. She went on to suggest some explanations for the difference:
“My research points to a long-standing cultural assumption in which the male contribution to reproduction is seen as primary. Indeed, the ancient Greeks, who thought of men as providing the generative seed and women the nurturing soil, would recognize a modern-day incarnation of this formulation in fertility agencies. Sperm donors think of their seed as essential to the child, down playing the role of the recipients. Egg donors insist that their contribution is “just an egg,” pointing to the recipient as the mother, because she is the one who nurtures by carrying the pregnancy, giving birth and raising the child.
Here’s more from our Q&A:
Q. With male donors seeing themselves as “fathers,” does it follow that they might be more open to establishing relationships with the children that are created from their sperm?
Almeling: No. In fact, I found that both sperm donors and egg donors were generally willing to meet children who requested it, or at the very least, to provide updated medical information. It is just that the men couched those feelings of responsibility in terms of being a parent, whereas the women did not.
Q. As more and more families are formed using donors, what sorts of ramifications might these perspectives have for the families involved and our cultural definition of family?
Almeling: Reproductive technologies have made it possible to partition motherhood into different elements. The woman who provides the egg, the woman who carries the pregnancy, and the woman who raises the child can each lay claim (or not) to the label of “mother.”
However, in our culture, it is still the case that providing the sperm makes one a father. As more and more families are created through what is called “assisted reproduction,” it will be interesting to see whether definitions of paternity emerge that are as flexible as our definitions of maternity.
Q. Given your research, do you think donors should have more rights? More information? More guidance?
Almeling:Based on my interviews with donors, one of the recommendations I would make is that men be encouraged to seriously consider the ramifications of sperm donation.
Most egg agencies require that women undergo psychological screening, with one of the primary goals being to ensure that they have thought through the prospect of biological offspring. Sperm banks do not require this kind of screening. They are content to let men focus on short-term financial gain rather than long-term implications, and I think it does sperm donors a disservice.
In terms of egg donation, there is a critical lack of data about the long-term effects of taking fertility medications. The egg agencies where I did research did a good job of informing women of risks associated with egg donation, but for women’s consent to be truly informed, those clinical studies need to be done.