“My Daddy’s Name Is Donor”
Kids need a real past: Children with donor parents suffer
when those raising them downplay their origins
By Elizabeth Marquardt
Published May 15, 2005
A little boy is pictured with his hands raised high, eyes looking
off camera, lips pursed pensively to show off his adorable chubby
cheeks. It could be just another Internet picture of a cute
3- or 4-year-old, but this one instantly filled me with shock
and anger, for his sake.
Why? Because the words on his crisp, white T-shirt read, "My
daddy's name is Donor."
Click the button beside his picture and you can buy that shirt
for a child you know for $15.95--or, better yet, you can buy
the baby bib emblazoned with the same slogan for just $9.
The T-shirt and bib are offered by a company called Family
Evolutions. Their Web site says the company was founded by a
lesbian couple--pictured with their two young children--who
live on the Jersey shore. Their son is the boy modeling the
Why was I shocked and angry? Not because the parents are lesbians.
Not because they are raising children. Both realities are here
to stay and they are fine with me.
What troubles me is that children today are being raised in
an era of increasingly flexible definitions of parenthood, definitions
that often serve the interests of adults without regard for
When they stop to consider the child's point of view, advocates
for new technologies used by homosexual and heterosexual parents
alike typically insist that children growing up in alternative
family arrangements are just fine. End of story.
But it's not the end of the story. Those cute 3- and 4-year-olds
grow up. They look in the mirror and see features and expressions
they don't share with the parents who are raising them. They
see other little friends who have a mom and a dad. They start
If their parents are wise, they will tell the child about his
or her origins, as most therapists now urge parents to do. The
child will learn that he or she was conceived using donor sperm
or a donor egg or womb. The parents will say they wanted a baby
so much they went to extra lengths to have one of their own.
They will tell their child how incredibly much he or she is
loved. This is all true. And without a doubt the child will
love the parents raising him or her with a deep, unquestioning
sense of devotion, as any child does.
Knowing that you are loved and wanted are essential to a child's
well-being. But as children grow up and begin to form their
own identities, they tell us, it is also essential to know where
they came from. Not just some information in a file about who
their birth parent was. What they often long for is the deep,
almost wordless connection to that biological parent, a connection
that most of us raised by our biological parents take for granted
and hardly notice.
Critics sometimes respond that donor conception is no different
from adoption. Both ways of growing up are just a fact of life.
But from the child's point of view there is a huge difference.
Adopted children know that their biological parents, for whatever
reason, could not or would not raise them. That knowledge is
painful. At the same time, they also know that the parents who
adopted them saved them from the terrible fate of having no
family. They feel gratitude to their adoptive parents and love
them as any child loves the parents who raised him.
By contrast, donor-conceived children know that the parents
raising them are also the ones who intentionally created them
with a severed relationship to at least one of their biological
parents. The pain they feel was caused not by some distant,
shadowy person who gave them up, but by the parent who cares
This knowledge brings the loyalty and love they naturally feel
for the parents raising them in direct conflict with the identity
quest we all must go through. When they ask, "Who am I?
Where did I come from? Why am I here?" they confront a
welter of painful uncertainties our culture hasn't begun to
Quest to find origins difficult
I was not conceived by a donor.
But I am in contact with young adults who were. They are organized
on Internet chat rooms and found posts I'd written on a blog.
They tell me that their early attempts to make sense of their
origins were made more painful by the people around them who
insisted that it shouldn't matter. That they should be glad
to be alive. That they shouldn't torment the parents who raised
them. That they are silly and deluded for thinking that some
guy who went into a little room with a dirty magazine holds
a key to their identity.
It was one of these young women who brought this T-shirt to
Narelle Grech, 22, is a donor-conceived activist living in
Grech knows little about the sperm donor who fathered her.
The limited knowledge has tormented her. She has responded by
actively and bravely speaking out about the child's point of
view with regard to donor conception, even in the face of criticism,
ridicule and incomprehension by people around her.
About the little boy in the T-shirt, she wrote to me, "The
poor kid is basically being told that his dad is not important
and is just a donor. I am sure he is one of many donor-conceived
people who are made to feel like they cannot be sad about the
loss of their birth fathers."
Another young woman wrote to me that her birth father, when
she finally found him, responded with a curt, dismissive letter
saying, "Well, clearly this is the Holy Grail for you."
He cared far more about preventing his wife from finding out
about the sperm he'd donated decades ago than about the person
he had intentionally fathered with no desire ever to know.
It is possible that the young people most troubled by their
donor origins are the ones who reach out to others in chat rooms
and by e-mail. Studies should be done to investigate the long-term
effects of being donor-conceived.
In the meantime, what I am hearing are articulate, sensitive
young people who write carefully and precisely--and with little
desire to cast blame--about the realities of radical reproductive
technologies for the class of people still largely ignored in
the debates about alternative families: the children.
What they are saying really should not be all that surprising.
For children, fathers and mothers--biological fathers and mothers--matter.
Unfortunately, this point of view is controversial today.
I talked with Stacey Harris, co-founder of Family Evolutions,
to learn more about the origins of the T-shirt and bib. She
was very gracious and clearly well-intended, but we couldn't
She said that she and her partner "just come up with silly
ideas to empower the community." They say the shirt is
empowering because, in New England at least, "they're starting
to embrace the gay-family idea, but they really don't want to
think about how these babies are created."
She told me with surprise that a number of "religious
right Web sites have seen this shirt and flipped out,"
saying the shirt minimized the importance of fathers. Her response
is that, "We're just trying to have fun." For donor-conceived
kids, she said, "There is no daddy." She went on:
"Kids who are empowered will grow up well-adjusted."
Her philosophy holds up well so long as donor-conceived kids
grow up conforming to the view that they don't care about where
they came from. But what if they do care? If the adults around
them dismiss their donor origins as no big deal, will they feel
empowered to express the deep sense of loss that they might
have? Or will they be left silently to assume that if they feel
any loss they have only themselves to blame?
Putting children's interests first
What's the answer? Some nations are banning donor anonymity
(as Britain recently did). That's a good step, but it's not
enough. Our culture needs a serious debate about the implications
of technologies used to form many of today's alternative families,
one that places the interests of the resulting children front
Right now, this debate is dominated by talk of adults' rights--the
rights of same-sex couples, the rights of infertile adults,
the rights of singles who wish to have a child. We must be sensitive
to the real desires and pain often expressed by these adults,
but their voices can no longer be allowed to drown out the children's.
Our culture also needs to face up to the importance of mothers
and fathers in children's lives. We have to be willing to hear
and respond to children's pain when they lose the ability to
grow up with their own mom and dad, whether it's due to donor
conception, or parental abandonment, or divorce. Their voices
are nuanced. In general, they don't condemn their parents. In
fact, most of them are highly protective of their parents, and
those being raised by same-sex parents generally appear to want
the right of marriage for their two moms or two dads. But we
cannot assume that they easily forget about those biological
parents on the margins just because the adults in their lives
want them to.
Their version of the story must be heard. And slapping slogans
on the shirts of young children--slogans that silence their
Elizabeth Marquardt is an affiliate scholar at the Institute
for American Values in New York City. Her book on the inner
lives of children of divorce will be published by Crown in September.
She lives in Highland Park.