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The Chicago Sun-Times.

The Incredible Shrinking Father;
Sperm banks are aiding and abetting a radical agenda: the dad-free family

April 29, 2007

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Here's a Delphic riddle for our times: When is your father not your father? Answer: when he's a sperm donor.

Consider a case now before the Kansas Supreme Court. An unmarried woman decided that she wanted a child and asked a friend to be a sperm donor. He agreed, and the woman gave birth to twins. The mother says that she always intended to raise the kids alone and never wanted the friend involved in their lives. The donor says that he planned to be the twins' father in name and practice. There is no written contract. What does the contemporary Solomon do?

Well, in a Kansas trial court, Solomon rules that without a contract the twins have no father. The man who provided half of the children's genetic material has no more relationship to them than does the taxi driver who rushed their mother to the hospital when she went into labor. Now, assuming that the Supreme Court upholds the decision, the state of Kansas can celebrate adding two more fatherless children to its population.

You'd think that we have enough problems keeping fathers around in this country, what with out-of-wedlock births and divorce. But these days, American fatherhood has yet another hostile force to contend with: artificial insemination, or AI.

While the number of kids born as a result of the procedure (about 1 million so far in the United States) is still quite small, AI is having a disproportionate cultural and legal effect and is advancing a cause once celebrated only in the most obscure radical journals: the dad-free family.

Today's sperm banks provide lengthy online catalogs of donors, containing such basic stats as height, hair color, eye color and education, as well as results from personality tests for an extra fee.

The sophisticated marketing of sperm banks, which appeals to single women and lesbians as well as infertile married couples, has coincided with what I call the "unmarriage revolution"—that is, the decoupling of marriage and child-rearing. The California Cryobank, the country's largest sperm bank, estimates that about 40 percent of its customers are unmarried women. The Sperm Bank of California says that two-thirds of its clientele are lesbian couples.

Who is the father?

The most profound problems with AI concern what has always been one of society's most vexing questions: Who is the father?

In AI's early days, doctors worked to contain the potential ambiguities of paternity by signing birth certificates with the husband's name as father.

Then in 1973, California and other states adopted the Uniform Parentage Act, which proposed that a woman's husband automatically be deemed the legal father of her AI children—assuming that he had consented to the procedure and that a doctor had performed the insemination of some other man's sperm. The donor dad was a legal cipher, just as he was a domestic one.

But with a growing number of AI cases involving single women and lesbian couples, the pretense of the donor's nonexistence is no longer tenable because there is no "other father." The issues then grow vastly more complicated: When is a sperm donor a father? Can his mother be the child's grandmother? Can a child have two mothers and no father?

Unfortunately, in the absence of any other authority, these questions have fallen to family court judges. The last label that these people imagine applying to themselves is "activist judge," but their decisions could be enshrining in law a profound cultural transformation that few Americans have had a chance to register, much less opine on.

The courts, in unwitting alliance with a fertility industry fiercely protective of anonymous sperm donation, have given their imprimatur to two nonsensical biological conditions: children who have no fathers and fathers who have no children.

The old Uniform Parentage Act needed to resolve the potential problem of two fathers: the donor and the mother's husband. It should be obvious that in the case of a single or lesbian mother, where the donor is the only father, the act is not applicable.

But it hasn't proved obvious to most legal experts, who continue to be guided by the old formula: As long as a doctor performs the insemination or a sperm bank sells the sperm, the donor is not a father. This doesn't simply mean that the child is fatherless in the way that, say, an orphan is fatherless. Rather, the child is born into an entirely new human circumstance. For, according to the law, the child never had a father at all. The man who fathered him is not in fact his father; instead, he's the originating site of organic material that was for sale, like a sulfur mine or a fish farm.

The flawed logic of 'intentionality'

To justify this new "reality," legal scholars argue that we should reject biology as the basis of parentage in favor of "intentionality." It's the person—or persons—who planned the child who have parental rights and responsibilities. A sperm donor doesn't intend to become a parent, while the woman who uses his sperm does.

But intentionality is wildly inconsistent with the law's traditional presumption of paternal responsibility.

Say a man has a drunken one-night stand. If the woman gets pregnant, the law sees him as a father, and he must pay child support for the next 18 years. But if a college student visits the local sperm bank twice a week for a year, produces a dozen children anonymously and pockets thousands of dollars, he can whistle his way back to econ class, no worries. Intentionality can't explain that legal disconnect.

As intentionality has supplanted biology, the law, by pretending nature doesn't exist, has pole-vaulted over reality.

A family court in Burlington County, N.J., recently put two women on a state birth certificate. Some legal scholars are proposing that courts move beyond the "heterosexist model" entirely. Why not put three parents—or four, for that matter—on the birth certificate?

The scholars had their way in January in Canada, when an Ontario court included a father, a mother and her lesbian partner on a birth certificate.

Intentionality, it seems, can accomplish almost anything. And AI's potential has not been lost on radical feminists and postmodern anthropologists, who see the possibilities for deconstructing the traditional family—as indicated by book titles such as Conceiving the New World Order and Baby Steps: How Lesbian Alternative Insemination Is Changing the World.

Traditional yearnings

Still, while there's very little research on AI families (and what there is suffers from size or design flaws), it's a good bet that most single women who go sperm shopping—and that includes lesbians—don't see themselves as you-go-girl! revolutionaries. On the contrary: their desires couldn't be more traditional. They want a baby. They long for a family. Like married women who set out to become pregnant, they're looking to feel needed, known and rooted.

In her recent book Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice, Rosanna Hertz found that most of her (non-lesbian) subjects had struggled for years to find husbands and start families before finally concluding that they had no choice but to go it alone.

Many mothers find that for all the magnificence of human intentionality and free choice, biology just won't go away. As they watch their children grow, they might notice an unfamiliar crooked smile or a musical talent when they have a tin ear. They wonder: Are these clues to the mystery man who is my child's father? They often try to flesh out an image of the human being from the sperm bank's description. Odd as it sounds, they may become attached, even romantically aroused—after all, they selected the donor because he sounded like the kind of man they might have wanted to marry.

In his fascinating new book, The Genius Factory, David Plotz describes one mother who fantasized that she would "meet [the donor] serendipitously, fall madly in love, and he would become the father of his own children." Another keeps a picture of a man she believes is her child's donor by her bedside.

Strangest of all is a Washington Post story about a Massachusetts mother of two who tracked down her children's father, donor No. 929 from the California Cryobank, in Los Angeles. After visiting him, she moved her family to L.A. and changed her kids' middle names to his surname.

For the children of single mothers, biology is also an unexpected and frequent visitor. When her 15-year-old son wanted to track down his anonymous father, a Colorado woman named Wendy Kramer started the Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site that allows kids to search for other children of their donor fathers. More than 7,000 donor mothers and children have used the registry to try to locate half- siblings and sometimes fathers—close to 3,000 successfully.

True, not all donor children are keen on finding their fathers or siblings, just as not all adopted children set out to find their biological parents. Elizabeth Marquardt, at work on a book titled My Daddy's Name Is Donor, finds a wide range of responses, from indifference to curiosity to angry obsession, and those feelings often change over time.

Yet even if the numbers of those suffering from father hunger are relatively small, their plight is consistent with a powerful human theme explored by storytellers from Homer to George Lucas: the child's longing to know his father. Marquardt describes AI and other reproductive technologies as presenting us with a competition between the rights of adults and the needs of children. Is there any question which is winning?

Reinforcing worst complaints about men

There are multiple ironies in this unfolding revolution, not least that the technology that allows women to have a family without men reinforces the worst that women fear in men.

Think of all the complaints you hear: Men can't commit, they're irresponsible, they don't take care of the kids. By going to a sperm bank, women are unwittingly paying men to be exactly what they object to. But why expect anything different? The very premise of AI is that, apart from their liquid DNA, we can will men out of children's lives.

It's not a good idea for society to erect a wall between children and their biological fathers—nor to encourage men to disown their kids.

In several nations, including Britain and Sweden, sperm donors must agree to be identified if the child wishes, typically as of age 18. It would be a good idea for America to follow suit.

But let's not kid ourselves that such a rule would also put an end to fatherlessness—which is nourished by our cultural predilection for individual choice unconstrained by tradition, the needs of children, or nature itself. To modify that preference, we'll need something much more radical than government regulation.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the author of Marriage and Caste and a contributing editor of City Journal, from which this is adapted.

©2007 Chicago Sun-Times

 


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