There's more to
fatherhood than donating DNA.
by W. Bradford Wilcox
BIRTHS TO UNMARRIED MOTHERS ARE at a record high in the United States--almost 1.5 million in 2004 alone, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. While the rising trend is of long standing, one novel factor driving up childbearing outside marriage is the growing popularity of single motherhood by donor insemination. The incidence of this "assisted reproduction," as it is called, has more than doubled in the last decade.
Most public discussion of donor insemination for single women has been carried on in a neutral, positive, or breathlessly celebratory tone. Isn't it great, the thinking seems to be, that these women are fulfilling their aspiration to be mothers with the latest technology that medical science can offer? Support groups like Single Mothers by Choice and mainstream publications like the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and the Washington Post describe donor insemination for unmarried mothers occasionally as a "sad" necessity for women who cannot find "satisfactory" partners, but more often as "awe"-inspiring, "liberating," or "empowering." Television shows like NBC's drama Inconceivable, broadcast this fall, glamorize assisted reproduction.
This enthusiasm is notable at a time when European countries are skeptical enough to actually ban the process. Sweden and Italy bar single mothers from engaging in either in vitro fertilization or use of anonymous sperm (or, in Italy, eggs), and Britain and the Netherlands have banned the anonymous donation of sperm. Also striking is how adult-centered our public conversation has been. Until recently, virtually no attention was paid to how the children of donor fathers make sense of their experience. Nor has the public debate acknowledged the moral and social ramifications of deliberately creating a whole class of children without identifiable fathers.
But there are good reasons to worry about this latest manifestation of fatherlessness. Listening directly to the voices of donor-conceived children should give us pause. Kyle Pruett, a psychiatrist working at the Yale Child Study Center, reports in a recent book that such children have an unmet "hunger for an abiding paternal presence." He quotes one girl as saying, "Mommy, what did you do with my daddy? You know I need a daddy or I can't be a child." A story in the New York Times last month reported that donor-conceived children check out strange men to see if they match the physical traits of their donor dads. "It'll always run through my mind whether he meets the criteria to be my dad or not," said JoEllen, a girl from Russell, Pennsylvania.
Young adults voice similar sentiments. Olivia Pratten, a 23-year-old Canadian conceived through donor insemination, told the Toronto Globe and Mail about her fatherless life: "I had to grieve. It wasn't till I was 17 or 18 that I got it. I felt very angry. How dare someone take my choice away from me? How dare the medical profession tell me it doesn't matter?" And a 15-year-old boy profiled recently in the New Scientist was so determined to find his father that he submitted a sample of his own DNA to an online DNA-testing service. He was able to match it to a family surname and from there to track down his dad. Young people with less ingenuity are probably out of luck. U.S. law does not regulate donor insemination, and most donors choose anonymity, making it very difficult to find them.
But there is an even more basic reason to worry about the deliberate creation of fatherless children. The best evidence from the social sciences shows that fatherless children as a group fare less well than children reared in intact, married families.
I recently chaired a team of 16 family scholars with expertise in disciplines like economics, anthropology, and psychology who surveyed the latest peer-reviewed research on family structure and child well-being. Our report, Why Marriage Matters (available at the website of the Institute for American Values), found that children reared in single-parent homes are two to three times more likely to face serious negative emotional, social, or health outcomes than children reared in intact, married families. These findings apply up and down the social ladder. They also apply in societies with generous welfare systems like Sweden, where poverty for single mothers is largely a nonissue.
Take crime. One study of 6,403 boys carried out by scholars at Princeton and the University of California at San Francisco found that boys raised in single-parent homes are twice as likely as others to end up in prison. Or teenage pregnancy. University of Arizona psychologist Bruce Ellis, who studied 762 girls in the United States and New Zealand, found that girls who saw their father leave the family before age six were more than six times as likely to have a teenage pregnancy as girls whose fathers stuck around through their entire childhood. Or suicide. A study of all Swedish children between 1991 and 1998 found that those in single-parent families were twice as likely to attempt suicide and 50 percent more likely to succeed in committing suicide than children in two-parent families. Note that these studies control for factors like race, education, and poverty that might otherwise distort the relationship between family structure and child well-being.
It appears that children are even affected physically by father absence. Pioneering work by Bruce Ellis suggests that the timing of puberty in girls is linked to the presence of a biological father: Girls who grow up without their biological fathers experience puberty (and therefore are likely to have sex) at significantly younger ages than girls who grow up with their fathers.
Why do fathers matter to children? Fathers typically bring an extra pair of hands, an extra set of kin, and extra income to the child-rearing enterprise, not to mention extra concern for the child's well-being. They also perform better than mothers when it comes to disciplining their children--especially their sons. Finally, fathers who are in good marriages with the mothers of their children implicitly teach girls to expect respect from members of the opposite sex, and boys to treat girls and women with respect.
For all these reasons, it is time to bring children's welfare into the discussion of donor-assisted single motherhood. A serious consideration of children's best interests would probably lead us down a regulatory road comparable to that being pursued in Europe, with bans on the donor-insemination of single women and on the anonymous donation of sperm and eggs. It won't be easy to rein in a multibillion-dollar fertility industry that is used to catering to the desires of adults unhindered by regulation or moral objection. Nor is it possible to protect all children from fatherlessness, given the vicissitudes of life. What should be possible is to reject the deliberate conception of children without flesh-and-blood fathers committed to playing a paternal role in their lives.
W. Bradford Wilcox is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a resident fellow at the Institute for American Values in New York.