Whenever I see Ross Douthat’s name in The New York Times I read it as ‘DOUBT-that,’ which sums up my feelings about most of his columns. I’m usually able to sneer and move on, but this one really got my gizzard. Douthat starts out by comparing the rigorous assessment of would-be adoptive parents, when the well-being of the child is paramount, to the online shopping for gametes, for which there is no Big Brother looking out for the child’s best interests. Douthat implies that without Big Brother, assisted reproduction is undertaken by selfish people who treat it like shopping for a car. Now, I realize I’ve been joking about Gattazon, and you might think I’m a pot calling the kettle black. Not so! The aspects of donor selection that reminded me of online shopping were the slick cryobank websites and the overwhelming search options. But make no mistake, I did not approach this task with the same distractedness which which I order a book or a shirt. I deliberated over the selection for several months, and before that we spent many months talking about the entire range of options available to us.
What Douthat ignores is that all men and women who use assisted reproductive technology are intentional parents. There are no “whoops” moments. We invest a significant amount of time, money, and emotional energy in becoming parents, and I would venture to guess that we spend more time thinking about why we want to be parents than other people do. When R and I began talking seriously about having children, we asked ourselves difficult questions. Are we being selfish by creating a child who will not have a father? Will our child suffer discrimination for having two mothers? Is it in our child’s best interest to use an unknown donor? We talked through the answers with friends and family. We made lists of male friends and relatives we would ask to serve a special role in Bean’s life. We considered other routes of creating a family–foster care, adoption, or simply being the doting aunties of our friends’ and siblings’ kids. Foster parenting seemed too wrenching, and adoption is cost prohibitive and difficult for lesbian couples. Being doting aunties rather than parents would leave us regretful.
Are we being selfish? Maybe. Are all parents selfish in some way? Likely. Douthat doesn’t seem to think so. He argues that stricter regulation of sperm and egg donation would “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.’” I’m fairly certain none of us exists of our own volition. We were all another person’s idea, or another person’s accident. But Douthat ignores that pretty obvious fact, and worse, fails to disclose that the “scientific study” on which his column was founded was authored by an “investigator” who directs the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. He acknowledges that the Institute sponsored the study, but we are left to our own devices to discover that the first goal listed under the Institute’s mission is “to increase the proportion of children growing up with their two married parents.” I think it’s fair to assume that “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” (yes, that is the title of the “scientific” report) is biased at best. Since I try not to make too many assumptions, I read the entire study, and was not surprised to find the methods were far from scientific. I was concerned enough to write a letter to the NYT, but some other folks beat me to it.
While I think Douthat sensationalized a complex subject by treating a very biased report as a stunning scientific achievement, I value his column for its ability to engage me in deeper thought about how my child comes into existence and what challenges she might face as a result. When I feel I’m veering towards pessimism, I think about Zach Wahls, son of two women and incredible orator. Would he say I’m being selfish by engaging in the “freewheeling fertility marketplace” to create The Bean? I doubt that.