“Then how are gay people supposed to get kids?” asked a young woman from the audience. I had just given a presentation criticizing donor-conception to 150 students at CSU-Northridge at the inaugural Bonds That Matter conference held by The International Children’s Rights Institute. I thought I had done a sufficient job of explaining that commodification of children and gamete donors dehumanizes people into objects, property, chattel.
“But listen to yourself,” I responded. “You just asked, ‘how are they supposed to get kids?’”
Apparently, for my questioner, the idea of some people possessing others seemed neither frightful nor relevant.
I’d like to summarize my presentation here and reflect on what caused a small number of students to revolt after the conference—going so far as to harass its creator, Bobby Lopez.
Are All Technologies Good?
I remember the first time I struggled to understand the ethics of a case involving reproductive technologies. I was five years old, folding clothes in my bedroom with my mom. She told me that my dad was not my biological father. My biological father was an anonymous sperm donor, whom we didn’t know anything about.
I was told I was very loved and wanted, and this is simply what infertile couples must do to have kids. Our family was different, but we never did anything “wrong,” so to speak.
After a wrenching divorce, I never again saw that “dad” of mine. My mother remarried, and I was given a new “dad.” But neither the first nor the second man ever made me feel safe in my own home. It was clear to me that all men were evil and vile. I truly thought that either they lacked the capacity to love, or else there was something wrong with me; I was not worthy of love.
In art school, at the age of twenty, I sold my own eggs as a known donor. That was my way of improving the system: by removing anonymity, I was making things ever so slightly better. This experience gave me even more insight into donor conception and the fertility industry. I’ve been treated as an object many times by men in my life, but never so intensely as by the female fertility industry personnel who managed my egg harvest.
After founding The Anonymous Us Project nearly four years ago, I have read hundreds of stories from donor-conceived people, gamete donors, and involved parties. I’ve become well acquainted with the issue from several angles. And here is what I’m worried about when it comes to the new ways in which we’re bringing forth new life.
Stories of Third-Party Reproduction Gone Wrong
Having children is currently our only legal path to achieving both genetic and memetic immortality. But having kids isn’t easy. You have to find a mate. You have to look outside yourself and into the eyes of another person and convince him or her of your decency, your desirability.
Third-party reproduction is not only used by the friendly, sympathetic infertile couples of our popular imagination. The cash-money market model of baby-making has opened the door to a broad consortium of terrifying players. Baby Gammy is just one example of how this new model serves predators first, children last. There are many more.
Mitsutoki Shigeta is a Japanese multi-millionaire who recently made international headlines for commissioning sixteen children born via Thai surrogates. He housed the surrogates, along with his children and nannies, in several condos that functioned as holding camps. He apparently has a great deal of sperm stored and was planning to commission at least a dozen pregnancies every year for as long as he could. A family member of one of the surrogates reported that in the surrogacy contract it was stipulated that if the woman were to bear an “imperfect” child, she would be required to pay $24,000 to him, Mr. Shigeta, and raise the baby herself. She would be paid just under $12,000 for carrying and giving birth to a healthy, normal child.
Then there is Nadya Suleman, the infamous Octomom. Nadya made headlines in 2009 after giving birth to octuplets born via sperm donation and IVF. Her story caused controversy, because Nadya already had six children and was living on public assistance at the time. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012, with over $1 million in personal debt. Around that same time, she released a porn video to help with her financial situation.
In a June 2011 interview, Suleman purportedly told In Touch Weekly: “I hate babies, they disgust me . . . Obviously, I love them—but I absolutely wish I had not had them.”
Just one bad commissioning parent could mean tens—or potentially hundreds—of negatively impacted children.
Infertility and the Industrialization of Parenthood
There are two categories of infertility: clinical and social. Clinical infertility arises from physical medical problems. Social infertility occurs when someone is unwilling or unable to attract someone of the opposite sex to procreate with.
Studies indicate that up to 15 percent of couples of childbearing age are clinically infertile. Much of this is due to our toxic environment, pollution, and unsafe chemicals, but there is also something to be said about our toxic behavior. At least one quarter of female infertility is a direct result of sexually transmitted infections.
The sperm bank industry initially began as a mission in eugenics, but ballooned due to our unspoken epidemic in low sperm count. Clinically infertile heterosexual couples began quietly using donated sperm. After a while, they began to be open about using donated sperm and insisted that biology doesn’t make a difference for the child’s well-being.
Then lesbian couples began using sperm donors. They argued, if biology doesn’t matter for a child’s well-being, then why should a parent’s gender? They declared that parenting is a set of tasks and obligations, and women can fulfill those tasks just as well as men can. Single-moms-by-choice followed, saying if biology and gender don’t matter, why should the number of caretakers?
So what happens when fathers become disposable? Public Discourse readers are well aware that fatherlessness invites a stark range of social ills. For instance, 90 percent of homeless and runaway youth come from fatherless homes, as do over 80 percent of rapists with anger problems. Now, those who promote fatherlessness via sperm donation are celebrating motherlessness via egg vending and surrogacy.
Think motherhood is sacred? One surrogate pregnancy can generate $100-300,000. Today, the motherless child has become the fertility industry’s most lucrative enterprise.
Third-Party Reproduction, Human Trafficking, and Adoption
Because this is an industry, we shouldn’t be surprised that fertility industry professionals are trying to industrialize the process and do things more efficiently. Surrogacy attorney Theresa Erickson was an “industry sweetheart” until she was convicted of baby-selling. Rather than waiting for commissioning parents to sign a contract before conception, Theresa expedited the process. She shopped for egg and sperm donors on her own and found surrogates to impregnate. Then, after the baby reached the second trimester, she would find parents, lie to them and tell them the original couple had backed out, and charge up to $180,000 per child. She created thirteen babies this way.
The only thing illegal about what Erickson did—the only reason she was put in jail for baby-selling—is that the paperwork was done after conception rather than before.
At a workshop where I once was on a panel with Theresa, she justified separating children from their parents by commenting that her mother was adopted, so what’s the difference? Most people I speak to relate third-party reproduction to adoption just as she did.
We’ve accepted adoption as a good. And adoption can often be very good; it is an institution that finds parents for helpless children who desperately need a decent home. But, at some point, our concept of adoption slid. Many people now think of it primarily as a way of “getting” kids. We know that adoption is made possible by the fact that the relationship between biological parent and child has been severed. So if adoption is good, some reason, then the severing of that relationship must at least be neutral.
But it is not neutral. It’s actually very sad.
Adoption is only morally sound as an institution that provides a loving home for existing children who—for some uncontrollable reason—cannot be raised by their biological parents. Third-party reproduction is inherently unethical, because it serves as a market to manufacture children for any adult who wants them, purposely severing the biological parent-child relationship for the sake of profit.
Disenfranchised Grief and Toxic Shame
Children whose parents die are given the time, tools, and permission to grieve the loss of their missing parent. People whose parents are absent through sperm and egg donation do not have the luxury to grieve. The overwhelming majority of donor-conceived people do not have photos, video tapes, or letters from their missing parent. Yet we are told we should be grateful. We’re told that if our biological parents had been forced to have a relationship with us, then they would never have agreed to give us life.
Since donor-conceived people are not allowed to grieve, we have few safe outlets for talking about our loss, and especially for talking about the inherent shame in how we were conceived. There is an ugly side to our conception: the masturbation, the anonymity, the payment. It’s shameful to say, but my father was paid roughly $75 to promise to have nothing to do with me. My mother accepted semen from a total stranger into her body. It is an embarrassing and painful truth.
Well, hurt people hurt. As the 2009 My Daddy’s Name Is Donor report states: “Donor offspring and those who were adopted are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25.” I worry about how confused my donor-conceived peers are—and how confused I have been—regarding what qualifies as sacred vs. commercial space. If our fathers were allowed to essentially pre-sell their own children, then what is off the table?
A Tangled Web
Growing up, donor-conception was sold to me as normal, even worth celebrating. There was a time in my life when I was enthusiastically in favor of commercial reproduction. After all, I wouldn’t exist without it. And I sold my own eggs at age twenty. Research has shown that donor-conceived people are twenty times more likely to sell their own sperm or eggs.
Around the same time I sold my eggs, I was also volunteering at NARAL (the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), fighting for the legality of partial-birth abortion. That is, the right to abort a baby who is fully developed and halfway out of the birth canal. After all, if it’s okay to force a child into existence because it’s so wanted, then why is it not okay to force a child out of existence because it is so unwanted?
This isn’t just a conversation about the merit of choice in pregnancy. If it’s okay to buy and sell sperm, eggs, and wombs, then why is it not okay to sell other human tissues or organs? If it’s okay to sell one’s reproductive parts, why is it not okay to sell one’s sexual parts, as in prostitution? If it’s okay to pre-sell and pre-order children via third-party reproduction, what is so wrong with buying and selling children who are already born or conceived?
It is naïve to assume decent people—like Bobby Lopez’s CSU-Northridge students—won’t be very confused by this tangled web. Commercial conception lives adjacent to abortion and eugenics as a disembodied face on the dice of human dignity. It is all tied together, for better or worse. The better is much better—and very much worth fighting for.
Alana Newman is the founder of AnonymousUs.org, an online story-collective regarding reproductive technologies. She is the co-author of Happy Couple Creed and regularly writes on matters of family and bioethics at AlanaNewman.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Alana_Newman.