Last week, Alexis Madrigal summarized the stunning innovations in human fertility treatments in the Atlantic. For those with enough money, science offers many new options—versatile biological parent arrangements for any family form, synthetic sperm or eggs to bypass (most) same-sex reproduction challenges, or genetic conformity bred by choice.
Each gives enough cause for worry —eugenicists of the past could only dream of such a world— but Madrigal’s summary does not address two aspects of IVF innovation: continued marginalisation of fathers and impact on children.
Even with all of the advances, women remain essential and necessary to reproduction. Men, fathers, do not. Science might be able to merge the DNA of two males into an embryo, an impressive scientific feat, but the men will still need to hire a womb. Add the cultural assumptions about women more intuitively caring for young children —assumptions that in other contexts women prefer to deny— and for the first years of life, fathers seem superfluous.
As Father’s Day approaches, we should remind ourselves that they aren’t. We once knew this, but now we need research for confirmation.
A recent meta-study, The Causal Effects of Father Absence, concludes:
“We find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalising behavior. These effects may be more pronounced if father absence occurs during early childhood than during middle childhood, and they may be more pronounced for boys than for girls.”
Beyond the fathers, all the awestruck at science articles rarely ask, or even wonder, how the children created this way are affected. The child of adoption or of one of the many combinations of donors and surrogacy cannot take identity cues from their biological parents. We — I am adopted — have to figure out our identity without reference to biological ancestors that most people can consider as a matter of course.
Where did I come from? Passion? Star-crossed young love? Endurance? Sacrifice? Or, a petri dish and a checkbook?
I know it is more nuanced than that; I am being harsh. But when those of us outside biological families first wrestle with identity as a child — when we are 8 and have to ask ourselves where we came from and what we are made of — the analysis isn’t nuanced.
I’ve talked with many adoptees, visited many discussion groups. I’ve seen occasional resentment and loss, but I’ve never seen anything like the anger found at AnomyousUS.com, a site for anonymous testimonies of donor conceived children.
The rawest hurt comes from those who end up without a father or a mother and those who were told about their conception later. Their entries have titles such as, “I’m a new breed of bastard”, “Build a Baby Workshop”, and “Adopt, Don’t Shop for Your Child”.
Build a Baby’s author summed up the donor conceived objections of the Brave New World of fertility well.
“Donor conception carries the intrinsic, unspoken premise that engineering a half-you, half-stranger baby that is “yours” is preferable to raising an existing child, that your forced offspring is more worthy of your love than another child. Instead of making a child’s dream of a family come true, this system makes a family’s dream of a child come true.
“The only one who doesn’t get a say in the latter deal is the child. With adoption, you are making the best of the raw deal life dealt a child. With donor conception, you are creating that raw deal as the byproduct of a selfish desire to pass on your genes any way possible.”
Science can tell us how to do new somethings, but it doesn’t tell us whether to do them. With IVF, society is marginalising fathers and treating children as commodities. One of the Anons at AnomyousUS named it; it is a new kind of bastardy.