More than 15 years ago my colleague David Blankenhorn, in his book Fatherless America, argued that fatherhood was being fragmented. The emerging cultural view he documented was that children didn’t necessarily need their biological father in their home, married to their mother, caring for them. Rather, children could suffice with a “visiting” father, a “nearby guy,” or a “sperm” father.
The “sperm” father, Blankenhorn wrote, “completes his fatherhood prior to the birth of his child. His fatherhood consists entirely of the biological act of ejaculation. He spreads his seed, nothing more. He is a minimalist father, a one-act dad” (p. 171). Sperm donation has been around for a long time, with the oldest recorded case in the U.S. happening in Philadelphia in 1884. But for most of its history is has occurred in secrecy, with even the offspring not being told the truth about his or her origins. Sometimes persons conceived through anonymous sperm donation have discovered the truth by accident, such as when a relative or family friend spills the beans, or in the midst of family conflict, such as divorce, or after the man they thought was their father dies. And single women and lesbian couples seem anecdotally to be more open with their children about how they were conceived (the absence of a man does raise the question), although even they can be reluctant to let the child name the reality that the absent sperm donor is actually their biological father.
For these reasons and more, we have more young people than ever before who know they were conceived via sperm donation and who are telling their stories. The most recent prominent example is found on the op-ed page of Sunday’s New York Times, where Colton Wooten, who was conceived via anonymous sperm donation in North Carolina not long before Blankenhorn’s book was published, tells his story of growing up with the “mystery” of being conceived by a man who his mother never even knew in the Biblical sense. He writes:
I didn’t think much about that until 2006, when I was in eighth grade and my teacher assigned my class a genealogy project. We were supposed to research our family history and create a family tree to share with the class. In the past, whenever questioned about my father’s absence by friends or teachers, I wove intricate alibis: he was a doctor on call; he was away on business in Russia; he had died, prematurely, of a heart attack. In my head, I’d always dismissed him as my “biological father,” with that distant, medical phrase.
But the assignment made me think about him in a new way. I decided to call the U.N.C. fertility center, hoping at least to learn my father’s name, his age or any minutiae of his existence that the clinic would be willing to divulge. But I was told that no files were saved for anonymous donors, so there was no information they could give me.
Like many donor offspring, young Colton Wooten worries about many things: that his sperm donor biological father might be dead; that he himself might accidentally find himself in a romantic relationship with an unknown half-sister conceived by the same donor; that his father might be face in the crowd, “in the neighboring lane of traffic on a Friday during rush hour, behind me in line at the bank or the pharmacy, or even changing the oil in my car.”
His concerns echo those my co-authors and I found in among adults conceived through sperm donation in a study we released last year titled “My Daddy’s Name is Donor.” Like Colton Wooten, we found that most young people conceived this way feel they have the right to know who their fathers are.
Wooten’s concerns are also reflected in stories that are constantly being added to AnonymousUs.org, an online story collective founded by donor-conceived adult Alana S. (who is also a blogger at the site I edit, FamilyScholars.org). His concerns are shared by donor-conceived adult and Canadian journalist Olivia Pratten, who last month won a first-ever decision in North America favoring the rights of persons conceived via anonymous sperm or egg donation to know the truth about their origins. A British Columbian supreme court justice effectively ruled that the anonymous trade in sperm and eggs can no longer happen in that province.
His concerns emerge in the stories of many donor-conceived adults who look in the mirror and see a question mark, a blank, a painful absence of one half of who they are, and face a society that tells them that their loss does not matter. Their stories are emerging in newspapers and blogs and on message boards around the world.
Increasingly, these young people’s stories are everywhere. Now more than ever, those of us who were privileged to know our own fathers are called to help make sure that no person is ever deliberately denied –with the aid of the state — such knowledge again. Here in America, let’s end anonymity in the sperm and egg trade business. Now.
— Elizabeth Marquardt is author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, editor of FamilyScholars.org, and vice president for family studies and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.