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Marquardt's off the mark

Posted Nov 15 2011 12:42pm
14 November 2011
By Susan Kane
DI-adult and parent by DI

Appeared in BioNews 633

I have no doubt that Elizabeth Marquardt's report reflects the feelings of the donor-conceived people that she studied. However, since true scientific study of donor-conceived people is not currently possible, her claims must be qualified. 
Unlike adopted people, the vast majority of donor-conceived people alive today do not know that they differ from anyone else. It is impossible to say what most donor-conceived people think. They do not know who they really are – certainly, we cannot find or study them.

Lacking a true random sample, we can only study those DI (donor insemination) adults who were told the truth by their parents. This minority falls into two further significant groups – those who were told the truth as young children and those who were told as teenagers or adults. Most DI adults alive today fall into the latter category.

We know from adoption research that 'late discovery' of genetic origins is traumatic for children and the adults they become. It is because of this documented trauma that adoption practices were changed from the secrecy that prevailed before the 1960s to the openness (at least about the fact of being adopted) that we see today.

At the present time, in the United States, if you apply to adopt and state that you plan to lie to your children about their origins for their entire lives, you will be told to learn more about adoption and the best interests of adopted children. Indeed, from my experience of American social workers, most would consider your intention to lie to your children about their origins a form of child abuse.
And yet, the infertility industry considers this a perfectly reasonable stance for parents using donor gametes . I can only conclude that infertility specialists, as a rule, are not friends with psychologists. Whether this is a by-product of their busy lives or perhaps an intentional rejection of the social sciences is difficult to say. However, the result of this highly unfortunate miscommunication between people who understand cell structures and people who understand human beings is that donor-conceived people are back where adoptees were fifty years ago – confused, traumatized and angry. And rightly so: confusion, trauma, and anger are appropriate psychological responses to being lied to by those closest to you.

I know from the stories of those in PCVAI (People Conceived Via Artificial Insemination online group) that late discovery often occurs in traumatic contexts. In our group, it is not at all uncommon for people to report that they were given the information that their father is unrelated to them during warm family moments, including after a divorce, during a vicious family fight or within days of their father's death. The absolute idiocy of keeping these kinds of secrets from children is well highlighted by these examples.

If Marquardt wants to isolate the effect of donor conception on outcomes, she must compare apples to apples. You cannot compare the psychological outcome of a 20-something donor-conceived adult who was told about DI two days after her father died to an adoptee who has known his identity from birth.

You cannot compare a donor-conceived adult raised in a family where assisted conception was considered a shameful secret to an adoptee raised in a family that affirmed adoption as a positive choice.

The data tables at the end of this study are inscrutable. Data is supposed to be stated in percentages, but at least one critical question ('at what age did you learn?') has 'percentages' that add up to 198. Almost 14 percent of the 'donor-conceived' participants were included because they 'thought they might be' donor-conceived. Marquadt did no regression analysis to examine the effect that late discovery might have had on participants' feelings about donor conception. These are the kinds of basic data problems that peer-review and the formal publishing process are meant to address.

It is entirely possible that the intentionality of DI is a problem for DI adults. A study that compared apples to apples might find this result. A peer-reviewed study that was not paid for by an advocacy organisation dedicated to preserving the traditional family would be even more helpful. This particular study is so rife with other possible sources of trauma and political bias that I could not support its conclusions even though I welcome the data collected on the feelings and experiences of its participants.

In some areas, such as whether lying to your children is harmful, the answers are known. Other areas, such as the question of 'intentionality', are truly new frontiers. We must remain curious and open to whatever the data tells us, but poorly executed social science only clouds the waters.

It is a loss for all of us that Marquardt chose to write a politicised report with questionable conclusions rather than doing the real research that is so badly needed in this area.
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