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Assisted Reproduction

Birds & Bees: The Conservative Version

I wish I had more time to comment on this editorial by Ross Douhat, but unfortunately I am preparing for a trip back East. A couple of quick points for now. First, it is interesting that this editorial came out the same day as the results of a 20 year study that found that “daughters and sons of lesbian mothers were rated significantly higher in social, school/academic, and total competence and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive, and externalizing problem behavior than their age-matched counterparts”.

Also of interest to me was this finding in the report:

Within the lesbian family sample, no Child Behavior Checklist differences were found among adolescent offspring who were conceived by known, as-yet-unknown, and permanently unknown donors or between offspring whose mothers were still together and offspring whose mothers had separated.

Now try to reconcile that with this statement by Mr. Douhat in his New York Times editorial:

Large minorities report being troubled both by “the circumstances of my conception” and by the fact “that money was exchanged in order to conceive me.” The offspring of sperm donors are more likely to oppose payments for sperm and eggs than most Americans and to say that “it is wrong to deliberately conceive a fatherless/motherless child.” And a substantial minority said that if a friend were pondering having a baby by a sperm donor, they “would encourage her not to do it.”

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.”

And the realities of commercialized reproduction — in which desirable donors can father dozens of children by different mothers, creating far-flung networks of half-siblings who will never know each other — weigh heavily on them. They are more likely than adoptees to say that “when I see someone who resembles me, I often wonder if we are related,” for instance, and much more likely to worry about accidentally falling into a romantic relationship with a relative.

Some of these burdens are inherent to a process that replaces natural conception with scientific technique. But some of them could be eased if the legal system treated sperm and egg donation with the gravity it deserves — as a process that’s far closer to adoption (and potentially more traumatic for the child involved) than our culture cares to admit.

Despite their reputation for permissiveness, many European nations have done much more than the supposedly socially conservative America to recognize that children as well as adults have an interest in the way assisted reproduction works. Britain, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland have banned anonymous sperm and egg donation, allowing donor-conceived children access to their family histories once they turn 18. Many countries also have limited the number of children a sperm donor can father to well below the 25 that the American Medical Association recommends.

Such restrictions would reduce the pool of willing donors and create longer waiting times (and greater emotional anguish) for aspiring parents. But they would also untangle some of the webs of secrecy and uncertainty that donor children find themselves born into. And they might diminish, if not completely undo, what one grown-up donor baby quoted in the study describes as the feeling of existing entirely for “other people’s purposes, and not my own.”

So why the disconnect between the two studies and polar opposite findings? Well, perhaps the answer lies in the study Mr. Douhat relies upon which was conducted by the Institute for American Values. I always tend to cringe when an organization purports to represent “American Values”. Nevertheless, this is the same organization that has very publicly, through its Director David Blankenhorn, fought tooth and nail in opposition to gay marriage. Hardly a non-partisan player in this debate, but rather a stridently partisan group with a very specific agenda. Is there someway to reconcile the disparate findings of these too studies? Perhaps. Yet it seems that at least one well-known psychologist takes exception to the pseudo-science of the IAV study believing it to be the product of agenda-driven advocacy:

Ross Douthat cites the Institute for American Values’ recently released “study” of children conceived by reproductive technology. But advocacy-group reports like this one are rarely subject to blind peer review, a minimum requirement for scientific objectivity.

Without critical feedback from scientific peers, such reports usually support the pre-existing prejudices and assumptions of the authors or the organization financing the work. These “studies” offer little scientific understanding of the complex issues involved.

Jack Drescher
The writer, a psychiatrist, is a past president of the New York County district branch of the American Psychiatric Association.

Todd Essig over at True/Slant takes a much harsher view:

I don’t want to get too “wonky” here so bear with me. When you look at the actual methods and the numbers in this so-called “study” they do not license the claims made in the report, claims Douthat treats as settled scientific fact. In fact when you look closely the report he relied on would not get through an introductory methods class let alone actual scientific peer review.

Let’s just look at one data point used to support the first of the 15 “Major Findings” they make in the “Executive Summary” section of their report. They claim they have found that

Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.

If true, that would be important. Such a real finding would influence educational, counseling, and therapeutic interventions. But it is not real, it is conservative advocacy, not research. After they make their pronouncement, the report offers some results from the Internet survey they conducted. This is supposed to provide empirical support. It does not. For example (and this is just one of many data points ill-equipped to support the claims they make), the second sentance in support of this “Major Finding” states,

Forty-five percent agree, “The circumstances of my conception bother me.”

But does this support their conclusion. No. First problem is they don’t report numbers for children born from traditional methods of conception; I’m pretty sure that children conceived while their parents listened to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell would probably also be significantly bothered.

But it gets worse the deeper you look, and more and more pseudo-. In this survery item people are being asked to choose whether they “Strongly agree,” “Somewhat agree,” “Strongly disagree,” “Somewhat disagree,” or “Don’t know” with the statement “The circumstances of my conception bother me.” When you look at the numbers, guess what; 50% disagree and 30% disagree strongly (the most frequent response). Hardly supporting the supposed finding that “Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.” In fact, the numbers seem to suggest that more kids than not are not bothered by the circumstances of their conception.

And it gets “worser” (and, I guess, I get wonkier). When children born to lesbian mothers are considered the number drops from 45% to 33%. Why is this significant? Well, it suggests in part that at least 12% of those who are bothered by the facts of their conception may simply be expressing empathy for the struggles their parents had to endure to have them. Or that lesbians make better Moms. Or that two Moms are better than one. But no alternate hypotheses are considered anywhere in this report, just a bunch of claims that have no empirical support but can be dressed up to look science-y.

I know science has its problems. Peer review is not perfect, far from it. But scientific procedures make it much harder just to make things up like this report did. The inner lives of children born via reproductive technologies is far too important a topic to leave to the pseudo-science of advocacy groups, and to the journalists like Douthat who should know better than rely on pseudo-knoweldge.

Hopefully I will have some time to re-visit this issue soon.


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