Is Ross Douthat Right about the Fertility Industry?

I know that the New York Times' Ross Douthat has many fans among our commenters, and though I don't always agree with him, he is quickly becoming a must read. Last month's column on abortion in America was nuanced and provocative, and sparked an interesting, if predictable, response from readers.

Last week Douthat looked at the fertility industry--specifically, the rapidly expanding market for sperm and eggs:

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You can shop for gametes the way you’d go shopping for a house or a car — buying ova from an Ivy League undergraduate, or sperm from a 6-foot-8, athletic, blue-eyed Dane. The person selling you the right to bear and rear their biological offspring can do so anonymously, with no future strings attached at all.

The result is a freewheeling fertility marketplace whose impact on American life keeps increasing. Sperm donations generate between 30,000 and 60,000 conceptions every year, and roughly 6,000 children are conceived through egg donation annually as well. About a million American adults, if not more, are the biological children of sperm donors.

Douthat contrats the fertility marketplace with the process of adoption, which in most cases requires prospective parents to undergo extensive background checks and counseling sessions. He cites a recent survey indicating that children conceived through sperm donation often have to deal with complicated psychological issues:

Americans conceived through sperm donation also are more likely to feel alienated from their immediate family than either biological or adopted children. They’re twice as likely as adoptees to report envying peers who knew their biological parents, twice as likely to worry that their parents “might have lied to me about important matters” and three times as likely to report feeling “confused about who is a member of my family and who is not.” 

Douthat's conclusion that some regulation of the fertility industry seems was mostly met with criticism from Times readers. I'm interested in what our readers have to say. Of course, church teaching is clear on this issue, but it is highly unlikely that public policy will ever follow the church's lead here. Then what should be done?

As a recent adoptive parent, who took part in several counseling sessions prior to adopting our daughter, I am very grateful for the guidance that I received. Raising an adopted child raises a host of complicated emotional issues, and I don't think my wife and I could have handled them alone. One of the reasons we chose to adopt through an agency is because they offer an array of post-adoption services for both children and parents. Encouraging fertility centers to offer these same services may be one way to help would-be parents to navigate the rocky shoals of surrogacy.

It seems to me the psychological health of the child must be our paramount concern here. And frankly, too often that fact is overlooked in the drive to conceive. So, what can be done to change the culture? How can we create an atmosphere in which parenthood is treated as the serious moral endeavor that it is?

I look forward to your responses.

Tim Reidy

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7 years 6 months ago
There are far greater problems down the road than the implications of who your biological parent is.  We are not too many years away from designer babies and even closer to mates chosen based on their DNA.  Science is coming close to engineering the actual DNA in each gamete and when that time comes, we are in for a very uncertain future.  We are even closer to examining the DNA of the zygote in order to see if the mother wants to carry the baby to term.  Today there are lots of abortions if the sex is not right.  In the future there will be terminations if the eye color or muscle type or intelligence is not right.
 
The ideas of ''Brave New World'' are not even close to what the future modern genetics will bring us.  Sperm donation is like the stone age compared to where we will shortly be.  I do not think it will be pretty.  Forget the parents.  Do you not think babies will be resentful of their designers in such a future?
 
Relative to the actual situation here.  Having children is a win win situation as far as I am concerned.  As parents we want to help continue on a society and be able to raise new members that will have to carry the responsibility in the future.  As such parents have a sense of fulfillment.   The child gets existence which I personally am thankful for every day.  The only gift greater than existence is salvation and they have the opportunity for both.  So children should be thankful for their existence.  
 
I understand the craving for knowing about your parents.  My father never knew his mother and never saw a photo of her.  He died never having seen her image and I often wonder at that loss.  A few years ago a long distant relative produced three photos of her as a baby and then as a teenager.  My first thoughts were why couldn't my father have seen them.
Stephen SCHEWE
7 years 6 months ago
Hi Tim,
Have a look at the article that appeared in the Times on May 21st called "The Gift of Sperm Donor 8282."  It recounts the experiences of three single women who wanted babies, passed along a sperm donation, and then wrote a book about their experiences called "The Three Wishes"; their agent  compared their tale to "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."  I'm not usually a Times-basher, but I was appalled by the article, which described one woman marrying her soul-mate after he "extricated himself from his marriage" without ever using the word divorce, while two of the authors "tell of the horrifying and tragic ordeals of terminating hoped-for pregnancies because of chromosomal abnormalities" without ever using the word abortion.  When I read Douthat's subsequent column, I wondered if it was a reaction to this piece, which seemed to say that when your biological clock turns midnight, the ends justify the means.
Douthat's broader point, which I suspect the authors of "Three Wishes" would reject, is that the broader community has an interest in what the rules are for how individuals organize their familes and make reproductive decisions.  Catholic teachers on sexuality, birth control, etc. have primarily responded, particularly since Humanae Vitae, by yelling "Stop!", and the broader culture isn't listening.  There are legitimate, moral reasons to use the new technologies; I think of a friend, for example, who was unable to conceive after having a fibroid tumor removed from her uterus.  She and her husband became parents twice by using a surrogate, and then raised two beautiful children.  If "by the fruits ye shall know him," the fruit was good in this case.  We need a moral theology of the body and the family that reflects pastoral considerations like these and the appropriate use of technology to achieve moral ends - a theology that allows us to navigate between the clashing rocks of "Stop!" and "anything goes."
Stephen SCHEWE
7 years 6 months ago
On sex selection, consider the disparity in gender among the birth cohorts in China.  The yearnings of families for male offspring plus the one-child policy of the government appear to have created a statistically significant imbalance between live births for boys and girls.  I don't know if there's been actual research to establish causality, but the prima facie evidence looks pretty overwhelming.
we vnornm
7 years 6 months ago
1. My own private thoughts: The horse left the barn. On this issue, I would like to see Catholics give the same dedication to the Church's teaching on families as the Quakers do to peace. It will only be through personal example, and not books or pronouncements by bishops, that we can sway what others do.
Ratzinger is right: in the future, the Church will be smaller and hopefully those in it will by their great dedication and behaviors sway others.
 
2. After the conception, those in parishes, Catholic schools, as well as Catholic agencies and hospitals, will need to consider how how to treat these children and parents. Perhaps they should be treated like all others?
 
3. There already is and will be a great need for services for children who are artificially conceived. We might want to re-evaluate the standard, "What is in the best interests of the child" and find options that meet this but do not contraindicate "best interests of parents and families." These criteria are not mutually exclusive and some who stridently call for "the best interests of children" use this as some kind of evidence for a particular ideology.
 
4. I don't like this whole idea of artificial conception. Once I heard Sir John Eccles, discover of synaptic transmission, say of brain science: "I don't know how the hell the brain works, and I won the Nobel prize." I'm not too hopeful about the future, and I agree with JR Cosgrove. 
 
Don't build oil rigs if you don't know what to do when they leak 5,200 feet below the surface of the ocean. 
 
bill
we vnornm
7 years 6 months ago
Some points on the study cited....
 
There are many problems with the study cited by Douthat. It was self-published and written by three individuals in a private foundation. The results dovetail nicely with the goals of the organization. It was not printed in a peer-reviewed medical or social science journal. (http://familyscholars.org/my-daddys-name-is-donor-2/)
 
Although the authors strive to say the  562 individuals in each of 3 groups are a representative sample of the nation, it's hard to see how this can be. The Framingham Heart Study has had 5,209 participants over the decades, and many of its findings are debatable.
 
In the study the Times cited by Elizabeth Marquart, Norval Glenn, and Karen Clark, conclusions are made from inappropriate comparison of simple percentages rather than inferential statistics.
 
On this issue and others, we need to evaluate carefully the results of "studies" that are not peer-reviewed or that may not be generalizable.
 
It is ironic that I agree with the aims of this foundation, but feel compelled to point this out, recalling the "bad advice" given to Bishops several decades ago. Perhaps we in the Church should make decisions based on our principles rather than "studies"??
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago
Oh boy, this is an emotional issue for me.  And I agree with Bill, the horse has already left the barn and the only way that Catholics will ever have any credibility with regards to the family and fertility issues is to live it.
 
I know first hand the pain of infertiliy as well as the joy of adopting a child.  I know how tempting it is to want to use technology for "fertility help".  I have a very hard time judging the women I know who use the in-vitro technique to conceive children, and I know that the Catholic Church is not near as vocal in their condemnation of this procedure as the are for abortion, even though it is the same thing. Fertilized eggs - embryos - are discarded (or frozen eternally, which is the same thing).
 
I was recently talking to another adoptive parent about when it is best to tell a child that h/she is adopted.  I had always thought (and I did this with my son) that you should start as soon as possible, so that they have time to grow into this truth about themselves.  He said that he thought that a very young child would not be able to process this information, and that it was more important that they know, as very young children, that there were no qualifiers to how they understood their integral place in the family.
 
The emotional issues surrounding adoption continue throughout the life of the child.  Though many children seek their biological parents, many almost defiantly do not.  THe emotional issues are not necessarily worse than those for children who are born into a biological family, just different.  I suspect the same might be true for those who are conceived from anonymous sperm or egg donor parents.
 
Just some scattered thoughts, to which a want to add a very hearty CONGRATULATIONS to Tim and his wife!!
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
7 years 6 months ago

I suggest you read the letters to the editor the NYT ran about the Douthat column, especially the one from Betty Jean Lifton. Her books and articles can be helpful for parents who adopt:

"'It seems to me the psychological health of the child must be our paramount concern here.'
Agree. I suggest you gather as much documentation as possible now, while it's still available, so when your child decides to search for her biological history, no social worker can say it got lost, etc.

7 years 6 months ago
''I do think, however, that sex selection is still a rare occurence. Can you point to data indicating otherwise?''
 
There is an estimate of 90 million females missing in Eastern and Central Asia so it is not rare and they believe it exists in our society with these cultures.  See:
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex-selective_abortion
 
Within our Western society I would think a preference for aborting females would be highly frowned upon by even the hard core materialists who are generally committed to feminist equality.  But I bet it exists one way or the other when the parent knows the sex of the fetus when contemplating abortion.  I often thought that there might be a preference for life vs. abortion if the parent knows it is his son or her daughter getting aborted as opposed to an amorphous mass of tissue.  I have nothing to verify that except instinct.
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 6 months ago
Several years ago, I attended a nanotechnology conference.  One presenter was showng his work on propelling a strand of DNA through an orifice.  It became obvious that, if, successful, and married to some sensor technique, that one could read a strand of DNA like a tape.
DNA, being a type of polymer, could also theorietically be synthesized chemical pair by chemical pair.  I don't know the specifics on the technique used recently, but they have generated synthetic DNA and inserted into a bacterium body, and it worked, with the bacterium living and replicating.  Human DNA is a lot more complicated and structured and mitosis a much more complicated process, but, theoretically, one could have a human being with no parents, outside the biological history of man, the original result of computer controlled generation.  They won't do this for humans first, of course, as with cloning and artificial insemination.  These technologies are always developed for agribusiness first, identically reproducible cattle, pigs, so every Big Mac is the same.  But then, it's only a short step to us for we are mammals, too.
If we outlaw it here, it will be done in China or Korea.  I'm not looking forward to it.  For what reasons would one want this?  Human motivations are varied and often strange.  Some men have sexual fantasies about female human/animal hybrids, catgirls, if you like.  Will one pay to have his dream "girl" produced?  I saw one of these guys express just such a wish on a cloning forum after the first mammalian cloning.
Elizabeth Marquardt
7 years 6 months ago
To commenter number 7:
The study is conducted by three co-investigators including Norval D. Glenn, Ashbel Smith Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and past editor of Contemporary Sociology and the Journal of Family Issues. The study is released by the Commission on Parenthood's Future which includes leaders and scholars from some of our nation's leading universities.
Nowhere do we say that it is a national sample, nor do we say it is longitudinal, as in the Framingham study.
It is, however, notable because it draws a large number of adults who were donor conceived from an online panel of more than one million households who had signed up to receive surveys on, well, anything (ie, not arguably people who have a bone to pick with how they were conceived), and it has comparison samples of people who were adopted as infants and people raised by their biological parents. The survey is representative of those million-plus households.
I hope you'll check out the full 140 page report, which includes data tables and a discussion of methodology and limitations, available for free download at FamilyScholars dot org . You might also consider correcting or ammending your comment.
While we're complaining, I'd like to say that I like America magazine but find it really annoying that you have to give them all kinds of personal information in order to sign up and comment on the blog - especially when one is seeking to comment in order to correct erroneous claims about one's own work.
My best,
Elizabeth Marquardt
Editor, FamilyScholars dot org
Co-investigator, My Daddy's Name is Donor: A New Study of Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation
Bill Collier
7 years 6 months ago
Re sex selection statistics...

Here's the link to a Boston Globe article from April 2008 that summarizes some of the statistics. The use of abortion for sex selection may not be a significant problem in the U.S., but its continued use in countries like China, India, and Vietnam will create internal havoc.

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2008/04/06/choosing_to_eliminate_unwanted_daughters/

For example, though sex-selective abortion is illegal in China, the ratio of male to female births is nevertheless 1.2 to 1 and as high as 1.35 to 1 in some rural provinces in China. It doesn't require a college degree in math to discern that these lopsided ratios are evidence of a ticking time bomb in Chinese society. As the number of men increases at a higher rate than the number of women, there will be fewer women available for marriage/procreation, and competition for the women will intensify. What happens to all of the unsuccessful men? Some experts have predicted increased incidence of violence (including sexual assault) in Chinese society.

The Boston Globe article also highlights a possible Hobson's Choice for feminists who support reproductive choice. Should they oppose sex-selective abortion that is culturally skewed against women? If they oppose such sex selection, aren't they explicitly or implicitly recognizing the personhood of a fetus and all of the legal ramifications that would follow? If they don't oppose such sex selection, won't they be silent witnesses to ever increasing skewing of male-to-female population ratios?
we vnornm
7 years 6 months ago
Dear Elizabeth Marquardt:
 
I'm delighted you are reading AMERICA. I carefully went over the 190-page report and provided this link for others who wish to read the survey.
 
I'm very sorry, but I can't amend my comment. One cannot make the conclusions made from percentages. More advanced statistics, such as inferential statistics, are required. An even bigger problem is that the work was not peer-reviewed. It was self-published. This is acceptable for many purposes, but not for important conclusions that you are suggesting.
 
I agree wholeheartedly with the aims of your group. I am surprised the New York Times did not have a fact-checker go over the study. Perhaps they don't do this on blogs or because of the economy they no longer do this on articles, either.
 
Thanks for keeping a dialog going. Social scientists need to do more work in this area and you are providing a groundbreaking function for which all should be grateful.
 
Best wishes,
 
Dr. William E. Van Ornum, Ph.D.

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