Children of sperm donors

Our study, released by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future last week, focused on how young-adult donor offspring—and comparison samples of young adults who were raised by adoptive or biological parents—make sense of their identities and family experiences, how they approach reproductive technologies more generally, and how they are faring on key outcomes. The study of 18- to 45-year-olds includes 485 who were conceived via sperm donation, 562 adopted as infants, and 563 raised by their biological parents.

The results are surprising. While adoption is often the center of controversy, it turns out that sperm donation raises a host of different but equally complex—and sometimes troubling—issues. Two-thirds of adult donor offspring agree with the statement “My sperm donor is half of who I am.” Nearly half are disturbed that money was involved in their conception. More than half say that when they see someone who resembles them, they wonder if they are related. About two-thirds affirm the right of donor offspring to know the truth about their origins.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, donor offspring are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.

As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families. (And our study found that the adoptees on average are struggling more than those raised by their biological parents.) The donor offspring are more likely than the adopted to have struggled with addiction and delinquency and, similar to the adopted, a significant number have confronted depression or other mental illness. Nearly half of donor offspring, and more than half of adoptees, agree, “It is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child.”

The stories that donor offspring tell about their confusion help to illustrate why they might be, as a group, faring so much worse. Christine Whipp, a British author conceived by anonymous sperm donation more than four decades ago, gives voice to the feelings some donor offspring have of being a “freak of nature” or a “lab experiment”:

My existence owed almost nothing to the serendipitous nature of normal human reproduction, where babies are the natural progression of mutually fulfilling adult relationships, but rather represented a verbal contract, a financial transaction and a cold, clinical harnessing of medical technology.

Lynne Spencer, a nurse and donor-conceived adult, speaks eloquently of losing trust when her parents did not tell her the truth about her origins, and she suspected the secret:

When you grow up and your instincts are telling you one thing and your parents—the people you are supposed to be able to trust the most in your life—are telling you something else, your whole sense of what is true and not true is all confused.

Others speak of the searching for their biological father in crowds, wondering if a man who resembles them could be “the one.” One donor-conceived adult responded to an open-ended question on our survey by writing: “Sometimes I wonder if my father is standing right in front of me.” Still others speak of complicated emotional journeys and lost or damaged relationships with their families when they grow up. One wrote at the end of our survey: “I still have issues with this problem and am seeking professional help. It has helped me to become a stronger person but has scarred me emotionally.” Another said, “[I am] currently not on seeing or speaking terms with family because of this.”

Listening to the stories of donor-conceived adults, you begin to realize there’s really no such thing as a “donor.” Every child has a biological father. To claim otherwise is simply to compound the pain, first as these young people struggle with the original, deliberate loss of their biological father, and second as they do so within a culture that insists some guy who went into a room with a dirty magazine isn’t a father. At most the children are told he’s a “seed provider” or “the nice guy who gave me what I needed to have you” or the “Y Guy” or any number of other cute euphemisms that signal powerfully to children that this man should be of little, if any, importance to them.

via New study shows sperm-donor kids suffer. – By Karen Clark and Elizabeth Marquardt – Slate Magazine.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://philippians314.squarespace.com Kim in ON

    When I read stories like this one, I am reminded about the importance of fathers in the lives of children.

  • http://philippians314.squarespace.com Kim in ON

    When I read stories like this one, I am reminded about the importance of fathers in the lives of children.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I can see difficulties from wondering “who is my real dad?” that even exceed those with adoption, but I also have to wonder if part of the issue is whether a disproportionate number of them never have known any father at all, and what kind of families they might have.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I can see difficulties from wondering “who is my real dad?” that even exceed those with adoption, but I also have to wonder if part of the issue is whether a disproportionate number of them never have known any father at all, and what kind of families they might have.

  • Orianna Laun

    Kids whose fathers aren’t present likely have some struggles as to questioning who their father is and why he is absent. At least in that case, the mother (presumably) had some sort of relationship with the biological father, as one author put it: “casual seminator, whereabouts unknown.” With donor children, I can see where the struggle is. The father is not even a one-night-stand. The father is a person who donated biologicals, for whatever reason, but was not interested in the outcome. To think your life began in a petrie dish because one person had to have you and one person decided to donate cast off. Maybe that’s a gross misrepresentation of the situation, but it may have crossed these people’s minds.

  • Orianna Laun

    Kids whose fathers aren’t present likely have some struggles as to questioning who their father is and why he is absent. At least in that case, the mother (presumably) had some sort of relationship with the biological father, as one author put it: “casual seminator, whereabouts unknown.” With donor children, I can see where the struggle is. The father is not even a one-night-stand. The father is a person who donated biologicals, for whatever reason, but was not interested in the outcome. To think your life began in a petrie dish because one person had to have you and one person decided to donate cast off. Maybe that’s a gross misrepresentation of the situation, but it may have crossed these people’s minds.

  • Carl Vehse

    A petri dish child might also think about his brothers and sisters who typically were created during the IVF procedure and who either were discarded after his successful implantation or may lie frozen somewhere in a tube inside a liquid nitrogen dewer.

  • Carl Vehse

    A petri dish child might also think about his brothers and sisters who typically were created during the IVF procedure and who either were discarded after his successful implantation or may lie frozen somewhere in a tube inside a liquid nitrogen dewer.

  • http://barbtheevilgenius.blogspot.com/ Barb the Evil Genius

    Not only that, but they are disturbed they might end up dating or marrying a half-sibling.

  • http://barbtheevilgenius.blogspot.com/ Barb the Evil Genius

    Not only that, but they are disturbed they might end up dating or marrying a half-sibling.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Per Barb’s comment, you can also buy eggs…..so it’s possible, though hopefully unlikely, that the child could meet and marry a full sibling that way.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Per Barb’s comment, you can also buy eggs…..so it’s possible, though hopefully unlikely, that the child could meet and marry a full sibling that way.

  • Catherine

    I actually have a friend who’s (single) mother went through IVF to have her. I never thought it would polite to ask how she felt about it, not growing up with a father and how she felt about her mother choosing to forgo marriage or any of the traditions. But as I said, I don’t think it’s all that polite to ask considering we aren’t very close. She also told me that right before her mother went through the procedure, she converted from Christianity to Judaism as well.

  • Catherine

    I actually have a friend who’s (single) mother went through IVF to have her. I never thought it would polite to ask how she felt about it, not growing up with a father and how she felt about her mother choosing to forgo marriage or any of the traditions. But as I said, I don’t think it’s all that polite to ask considering we aren’t very close. She also told me that right before her mother went through the procedure, she converted from Christianity to Judaism as well.

  • Joe

    To me this falls into the category of “just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.”

  • Joe

    To me this falls into the category of “just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.”

  • Bryan Lindemood

    This post is a sad but very true reminder of the importance of fathers in society. In church yesterday we prayed for God to provide Christian father figures for the fatherless so that they can also receive a father’s blessing. Mature Christian men should be open to learning about how they can bless the fatherless if and when they are invited. If any of you guys are interested, any sound Lutheran pastor ought to make a decent teacher in this arena. If God has given you a godly concern for a fatherless child, ask your pastor for prayer, teaching about fatherly blessings, and guidance.

    Unfortunately many young fathers feel pretty ill-equipped to excercise this part of their god-given vocation. Take heart, brothers, we can be taught, and we can teach (those we pray for and bless as) our daughters and sons as best we can. Blessings to all in Christ.

    Thanks for this post, Dr. Veith, just saw it today. Happy Father’s Day, by the way.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    This post is a sad but very true reminder of the importance of fathers in society. In church yesterday we prayed for God to provide Christian father figures for the fatherless so that they can also receive a father’s blessing. Mature Christian men should be open to learning about how they can bless the fatherless if and when they are invited. If any of you guys are interested, any sound Lutheran pastor ought to make a decent teacher in this arena. If God has given you a godly concern for a fatherless child, ask your pastor for prayer, teaching about fatherly blessings, and guidance.

    Unfortunately many young fathers feel pretty ill-equipped to excercise this part of their god-given vocation. Take heart, brothers, we can be taught, and we can teach (those we pray for and bless as) our daughters and sons as best we can. Blessings to all in Christ.

    Thanks for this post, Dr. Veith, just saw it today. Happy Father’s Day, by the way.

  • sg

    I call BS on the study methodology.

    They should have given the kids the MMPI or some other reliable psychological test.

    The fact that they choose to do a survey is proof that they are not interested in the truth because they could have used a valid, reliable instrument for psychological assessment and just chose not to.

    Typical sloppy social science study designed to fuel media hype.

  • sg

    I call BS on the study methodology.

    They should have given the kids the MMPI or some other reliable psychological test.

    The fact that they choose to do a survey is proof that they are not interested in the truth because they could have used a valid, reliable instrument for psychological assessment and just chose not to.

    Typical sloppy social science study designed to fuel media hype.

  • Hopeful mother to be

    I believe this study just confirmed my choice not to tell the child my husband and I hope to conceive using donor sperm. The grown children in the study had problems if they were told young, teenaged or as adults so what age would be a good age? – NONE. My husband is adopted and has no urge to find his biological parents, so any child we would have either with DS or natural would not know their history. It was only after these people found out they were ceonceived with DS that they became so upset. There parents should have let them live happy lives knowing that their mother and FATHER loved them very much. What more do people need. When has love become insufficient?

  • Hopeful mother to be

    I believe this study just confirmed my choice not to tell the child my husband and I hope to conceive using donor sperm. The grown children in the study had problems if they were told young, teenaged or as adults so what age would be a good age? – NONE. My husband is adopted and has no urge to find his biological parents, so any child we would have either with DS or natural would not know their history. It was only after these people found out they were ceonceived with DS that they became so upset. There parents should have let them live happy lives knowing that their mother and FATHER loved them very much. What more do people need. When has love become insufficient?

  • redplanet

    Dear Hopeful Mother to be:

    You are ignorant and naive. Genetic testing will be available to all very soon. Your child will know asap you are a liar. The damage you do by hiding your child’s identity is abuse.

    Your husband is an outlier. 99 percent of adoptees search or want to.

    But the good news is this study is BS. It puts a religious right spin on things. Look at the other studies on donor kids. ALL want background info but they aren’t the basket cases this place makes you think they are.

    I am personally against egg and sperm donation. It is identity theft and a violation of human rights. But religion hijacks your mind. Pick your poison.

  • redplanet

    Dear Hopeful Mother to be:

    You are ignorant and naive. Genetic testing will be available to all very soon. Your child will know asap you are a liar. The damage you do by hiding your child’s identity is abuse.

    Your husband is an outlier. 99 percent of adoptees search or want to.

    But the good news is this study is BS. It puts a religious right spin on things. Look at the other studies on donor kids. ALL want background info but they aren’t the basket cases this place makes you think they are.

    I am personally against egg and sperm donation. It is identity theft and a violation of human rights. But religion hijacks your mind. Pick your poison.


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