The featured article on the new website AnonymousUs.org is about a bad breakup. A middle-aged woman discovers that her boyfriend is accused of incest. What does she do? She has herself artificially inseminated by an anonymous sperm donor, but then regrets the decision and has an abortion, which she equally regrets. As her biological clock continues ticking, she ponders another artificial insemination. Welcome to the wonders of "reproductive choice."
The AnonymousUs Project is the brainchild of Alana Stewart, a 24-year-old musician whose mother conceived her using a sperm donor. Stewart is now trying to find her biological father, and she's set out to give those involved in assisted reproductive technologies the opportunity to tell their stories uncensored. An estimated 30,000-60,000 children are born every year in the U.S. through the use of sperm donation. While the fertility industry makes $3.3 billion annually, little is known about the experiences of these children. Stewart's website says, "Though anonymity in reproduction hides the truth, anonymity in story-telling will help reveal it."
According to Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and editor of FamilyScholars.org, half of young adults who are conceived by sperm donation are "disturbed about the circumstances of their conception." "Overall, compared to those who are raised by their biological parents, they are more likely to struggle with mental illness or substance abuse or depression," Marquardt told NPR last summer.
Yet not every story on AnonymousUs is as dysfunctional as the one above. Other narratives thoughtfully explore the complex realities that reproductive technologies make possible. For example, one storyteller writes,
As an adoptee, it makes me sad to read about the grief many adoptees and sperm donor children are feeling. The saddest part about it is that I think a lot of it is self induced. I know that growing up, there were times that I felt like my parents didn't understand me and that my 'real' parents would have. But, the truth is, every kid feels misunderstood growing up. The difference is, adoptees/donees have a fantasy world that they can retreat to where everything would be easier if they were with their 'real' parents."
One mother admits on AnonymousUs, "I mostly used the term 'donor sperm' for convenience, but I think a more accurate way to describe this is to call it 'conceiving a child with a man who donates sperm.' Saying 'donor sperm' depersonalizes it and makes it easier to digest because it is about conceiving a child with an 'it' and not a person. The reality is that people conceive children, not objects. No regrets."
Stewart is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject. Her older sister was adopted, she was conceived from her mother's egg and an anonymous donor's sperm, and her younger brother is the biological child of her mother and stepfather. She felt loved and supported by her mother growing up, but says, "It taught me a lot about how important biology is in really being cared for properly." She explains, "My father sold me away for $75. How is that supposed to make me feel about myself? The toxic shame that we are giving our kids on purpose is hurting us so much."
The response to the site has been huge, says Stewart, because it allows people to express themselves without hurting their parents. She says, "Our parents are a little insecure about some of the decisions they made. It just opens up a whole can of worms when you speak out." Sadly, being an outspoken activist has seriously damaged Stewart's relationship with her mother, but she adds, "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think it was really important."
Stewart felt so strongly about encouraging "Open ID" egg donation, wherein the resulting children know their biological mothers, that she became a donor herself. Two children have been conceived from her eggs. When I asked how she feels about them, Stewart admitted, "I'm really nervous about it …. I've been to workshops. Mothers who use surrogates and egg donors seem to be more insecure about their motherhood. They seem to need their children to affirm them as the rightful mother. And, I'm worried because typically they're older; I'm worried that my biological children are going to be taking care of their mothers in geriatric care when they're young." She believes her children were conceived for single women without partners."I'm sad for my kids," she told me, "but the only thing that may redeem that is being Open ID; if they need to come find me, I'll be there for them."
Marquardt, co-investigator for the 2010 report "My Daddy's Name Is Donor," recently wrote that the complicated stories on AnonymousUs "echo and affirm" her research: "They tell us that bodies matter. That to be deliberately denied knowledge of where you come from is painful and bewildering, at any age. That the human longing to know where you fit in the human family extends also to donor conceived persons. That the fertility industry is rife with contradictions, praising donations and altruism when in fact cold cash fuels each transaction."
If you think this reproductive technology issue is not a concern for Christians, you are wrong. Marquardt told me, "Of 485 donor conceived persons we recruited through a web-based panel of one million plus U.S. households, 32 percent say they are Catholic and 32 percent say they are Protestant. Persons conceived this way are in the pews." She posed some provocative questions for blog readers' consideration:
What are churches saying about the donor-conceived experience?
How are we ministering to donor-conceived children?
How might the churches' discussion of reproductive technologies need to be challenged by the experience of these persons conceived this way who so often tell us that knowing the identity of, and having a relationship with, their biological fathers matters to them?
So, what do you think?