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Are You My Mother?

When P.D. Eastman penned the children’s classic in 1960, the answer to the question posed in the entertaining children’s book was obvious even to the young.  Fast forward 50-some years and things are not so clear.  In the parenting blog of the NY Times, Dawn Bovasso recently featured an article [1] on a new trend: gamete donors are becoming ‘open’ to being identified to the children they create, and by extension, to the children’s custodial parents.  But, that’s not all.  Even in the case of those “traditional” donors who prefer to remain anonymous, change is afoot.

In the latter instances, there are new opportunities to join a “sibling registry” which allows contact with all the other children who came into being through use of the same anonymous donor: ½-siblings, as it were.  None of these ½-siblings know either each other or the actual parent whose genes they share.  None of the known parents know each other.  Yet, they are busy cobbling together virtual families after having “met” online.

The trend is not surprising from a psychological perspective.  People are made to connect and they naturally strive towards family and community, so the desire to know one’s history is natural and healthy; research [2] bears out the benefits of an open adoption situation in many traditional child placements.  Yet, there is something very surprising with this most recent foray into attempting to normalize something that Catholic bioethicists consider flawed from the start—that is, the creation [3] of a human person outside the marital act.

The Problems

1. Children as commodities:  Ms. Bovasso’s piece suggests that her process of choosing a sperm donor is not so different than online dating, as she describes scrolling through the “options.”  Yet, those seeking companionship through online dating are adults choosing to do so, and if anyone feels objectified, used, bought or sold, one could argue that he or she knew the risks up front.  But the child who comes of age and learns that his paternity was elicited from a drop-down menu is in quite a different situation.  That child was “ordered” with certain expectations.  What does one do when the child born was accidentally from another donor, such as a child being born of a different race than anticipated?  Will laws eventually provide for “refunds?”  And what of the implicit expectations placed upon such children—such as a particular level of intelligence, appearance, etc.—by the “ordering” parent?  Rather than blooming gifts that should be loved for who they are, these children are at risk for being disappointments at best, and rejected at worst.

2. Uncertainty and Undefined-ness:   After adding the makings of her son “to her cart” (see point #1) Ms. Bovasso reflects on her realization that he “came with 14 brother and sisters-at least….There are likely more we don’t know about: from my egg donation (years ago), the sperm donor’s natural children, unregistered siblings, and some whom (sic) haven’t been born yet.”  While a toddler or young child may respond excitedly to pictures, video and live interaction over a computer with his ‘siblings’, it is short-sighted to think that he can understand and manage the meaning of such relationships.  As he grows older and begins to have some modicum of understanding what traditional families look like, the job won’t get any easier.

3. Impulsivity (of the adults, not the children):  Ms. Bovasso writes that within a few days of giving birth she “immediately [began] emailing everyone with children from the same donor” and relates that a community was formed which made a “kind of sprawling family – right now.”  Relationships take time and effort.  There are no shortcuts.

When biologically-related persons form a community we call family the process is naturally born of the love of a man and woman for each other.  Children are gifts of that union.  But when one purchases a parent for her child, and then creates a “family” via social media, none of the true indicia of family are present.  My fear is that it will not end well for anyone involved.  Ms. Bovasso herself acknowledges “[t]here’s no way to know what any of these relationships will look like in the long term.…But right now, this is our family.”  I beg to differ.  It’s a network, not a family.  And children who are not able to distinguish between the two are at high risk for having poor relationships and sadder lives than needs be.

And Problems Beget Problems

All of this is fairly new, so the fallout from treating children as things, and impetuously subjecting them to unclear milieus is not definitively known at present.  But, it can clearly be seen as fraught with risk.   What is not considered is how the child’s ½-sibling network will fit into and interact with his or her actual family.  Even if a single person starts this process, he or she will have parents, and likely siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins who are actually biologically related to the ordered child—some of whom may be rightfully wary of, or confused by, (in this case) 14 instant new “relatives.”

Familiarity and love, trust and commitment are the hallmarks of family.  Without them, surviving the struggles also inherent in families would not be possible.  With no history of connectedness, there is no basis for trust or realistic expectation of commitment in the “Registry Family,” though it appears to be assumed.  While the more easily purveyed “love” from afar and over the net seems attractive, with few demands placed upon any party, in truth, and in time, such “love” also offers little significance.  Thus, the likelihood of disappointment is high.

What is pursued is no doubt noble; most people are seeking closeness and intimacy to meet genuine needs.  We are made for unity and communion with others, so it is no wonder that at precisely the time the traditional family is under withering assault, those doing the assaulting are creating ever-new options and alternatives to fill the void they create.  Nevertheless, we must confront these challenges and defend the traditional family—biological or adoptive—which is, in the end, the only “family” worthy of the name.
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