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A Father's Day reminder: They're still essential

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, June 20, 2010; A19

It's that time of year when America celebrates the donor we used to call "Dad."

Granted, many children still have in-house fathers, but millions don't. Some fathers have become alienated through divorce. "Baby daddies" never were invited to the commitment party. Still others are anonymous in the truest sense -- mere DNA donors who made a deposit and picked up a check.

The latter are the subject of a new study -- "My Daddy's Name Is Donor" -- about the offspring of sperm donors. Published by the Center for Marriage and Families, the report is the first of its kind since artificial insemination and single motherhood came into vogue. Finally, we have enough grown children from such arrangements to ask a few questions and draw some perhaps unwelcome conclusions.

Researchers assembled a representative sample of 485 adults, ages 18 to 45, whose mothers conceived them with donated sperm. They compared their attitudes and sense of self to a group of 562 young adults who were adopted as infants and 563 young adults who were raised by their biological parents.

By large percentages, the sperm-donor children suffered more depression, delinquency and substance abuse than children who were adopted or raised in a home with their two natural parents. Almost two-thirds agreed that "My sperm donor is half of who I am." Half were concerned that money was involved in their creation.

The only surprise in these findings is that we never questioned: How could it be otherwise? And how did we ever convince ourselves that fathers aren't essential?

I tried to answer those questions in my book, "Save the Males," a few years ago and, in fact, interviewed Karen Clark, one of the co-authors of this study (with Norval D. Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt).

Clark found out at age 18, when her non-biological dad died, that she had been donor-conceived. It wasn't until she had children of her own that she began to pursue her biological father's identity and became a donor offspring advocate.

One of my most passionate interview subjects was a British doctoral student, Tom Ellis, who learned at 21 that he and his brother had been donor-conceived. Though raised by two loving parents, Ellis was devastated and embarked on a crusade for identity.

"It's absolutely necessary that I find out who he is [in order] to have a normal existence as a human being," he told me. "That's not negotiable in any way." As this recent study indicates, not all children suffer from being donor offspring. But enough do that we should seriously reconsider the notion, now popularly embraced, that children can adapt to any old family configuration.

The zeitgeist already is richly endowed with myths and fantasies that support this essentially pro-feminist, anti-male posture. Three movies this year -- "The Switch," "The Kids Are All Right" and "The Back-Up Plan" -- advance the moral that donor kids turn out just fine.

Except not all do.

It isn't necessary to blame mothers for their decision to seek impregnation through sperm donation to now wonder if we may have been mistaken in some of our assumptions. We are naturally sympathetic toward the woman, who, having reached 40 and despaired of finding Mr. Right, turns to a sperm bank as a last resort. Forfeiting motherhood is a high price to pay for unlucky timing.

But whether a woman has a right to seek self-fulfillment may not be the most important question. More compelling is whether children have a right to two parents -- a mother and a father.

Again, the zeitgeist is the enemy of due diligence. We've long ago given up the idea that marriage should be a prerequisite to pregnancy or that single motherhood is anything short of virtuous. Social scientists, meanwhile, have devoted considerable energy toward proving that fathers aren't necessary, despite voluminous research demonstrating that fatherless children suffer a host of pathologies. Though some children do splendidly with just a mother or just a father or some other variation, the overwhelming evidence confirms what we know in our hearts.

Fathers are kind of nice to have around.

The adult voices of donor offspring are a welcome counterbalance to an array of cultural forces aimed at further marginalizing fathers. At the very least, as this study implores, it is time for a serious debate on the ethics, meaning and practice of donor conception.

Fatherhood is more than a drop of DNA.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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