Children Conceived Through Sperm Banks and Surrogacy

Social and Legal Issues

Posted May 27, 2014

Today, as never before, reproductive options are available to couples and single people, homosexual and heterosexual alike, that are still only being realized. And, today, as word spreads, a billion dollar industry has emerged, and many clinics are available worldwide offering sperm donation and surrogacy services. Estimates are that over 50,000 babies are born each year in the U.S. through so-called artificial insemination. I say "so-called" because the process of producing babies, though different, is actually very natural. Only around an estimated 1,000 babies are produced each year by surrogates, but the numbers are rapidly rising.

I am personally familiar with two situations involving children born to mothers who chose donors from sperm banks and two cases of women who served and are serving as surrogates. I will briefly describe each of these women's stories.

Maria is a single woman, a lesbian without a partner, who, in her late 30s wished to have a child. Her mother, anxious to be a grandmother, offered to pay for the procedure. So Maria looked online and easily located a lesbian-owned sperm bank in California that claimed to have the most "willing-to-be known" donors. This was important to her so her child could have a meeting with the man at the age of 18. Maria searched through the catalog and selected the characteristics she wanted. Height, eye color, ethnicity, baby picture, and some personality characteristics were listed. Next she located a doctor to perform the procedure, but when the first attempts failed she switched donors and received the frozen specimens privately. Today, she has one precious child and another one on the way from the same donor. The cost to her grandmother was around $6,000 for each pregnancy.

Mary, whose husband was infertile, went to a sperm bank in Minnesota, and had three children by the same donor. She chose a donor with similar ancestry to her husband and with an IQ over 140. Her children are gifted intellectually and musically. The donor, however, was a carrier of a rare but minor condition, and the mother also was a carrier. When the children all developed the problem, everyone asked about the father. No one had known that Mary's husband was not the biological father, but then many questions were asked about where this genetic problem had come from. The secret was then revealed. Interestingly, there were 50-100 offspring produced from the same donor father. Some of the mothers found each other through a sibling registry, communicated online, and arranged for annual gatherings each summer to bring the children together.

Joan and Jenny are well-educated women from Iowa who had easy pregnancies and wanted to help couples who couldn't have children to do so. Joan, who works as a secretary, earns around $80,000 for each child. When she gave birth to twins, however, it was two for the price of one. She has maintained close ties with the family and visits them frequently. Jenny produced a baby for a gay couple from Europe. They could not go to India as many other couples do, as the Indian government only allows the clinics there to provide services for heterosexual couples. (The process costs only about one-eighth as much in India, and the biological mothers are well-monitored with diet and so forth. They are not legally allowed to keep the babies that they give birth to.)

The social situation can be complex. Elizabeth Marquardt conducted a survey of around 500 adults whose fathers were donors and compared them to an equal sample of adults who had been adopted (see "My Daddy's Name is Donor" available online). She found that many of the children who were raised by single mothers to have concerns about the unknown identity of the father and to be bothered about the financial aspect of the situation, that the donors had been paid. These children were found by the researchers to be more troubled generally than were children who grew up in adoptive homes. If the parents had lied to the children originally about their fathers, they felt disillusioned. Nevertheless, in my review of the research findings, it seemed that all were glad to have been brought into the world, and that the negative aspects of their circumstances were exaggerated.

To help these children know where they came from, some experts and donor children advocates advise against permanent donor anonymity. Some countries in Western Europe have passed laws revealing the names of the donors. The problem is that few men will donate their sperm under such conditions. American women have the option to pay extra for the sperm of "willing-to-be-known donors." In the long run, I believe the extra expense is worth it.

The only legal regulation to date in the U.S. is for strict screening for health conditions and that the medical records be provided. It is not legally required, but a registry of donor births is available online so siblings can locate each other. Some countries limit the numbers of offspring produced by the same donor; this is to limit the possibility that the children unknowingly will date or marry.

The surrogates in the U.S. generally draw up detailed legal contracts to reach agreement on a number of situations that might arise. Issues are whether the woman should have an abortion in the case of problems with the fetus, what to do if the mother gives birth to twins, and what happens if the biological mother chooses to keep the baby.

In contrast to Elizabeth Marquardt who in her media interviews has voiced deep concerns about these recent developments and what she sees as psychological damage to the child, I am convinced that these options will bring about far more happiness than distress to the children conceived through third party involvement and that there will be few regrets by the parents. No longer will single women feel they must marry in order to have a child; they now can marry for love or not at all. No longer will gay men, if they have the finances, be deprived of the joys of fatherhood. And now many more people will become aunts and uncles and grandparents, able to share in the joy of their newly found roles. The whole society will benefit. This is a "brave new world" indeed.