Doubt That

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.

Planting The Bean, Part 2

I dare you to conduct this thought experiment: visit the website of one of the major  sperm banks–California Cryobank or Fairfax Cryobank–and try to choose someone who will contribute half of your child’s DNA. How did you filter the candidates? Were you able to pick one? How long did it take? What questions did it raise?

Some banks offer a quick search feature, which filters by hair and eye color and ethnic background. Most banks have an advanced search feature that allows you to filter by hair and eye color, skin tone, blood type, ethnic background, ancestry, education level, area of study, identity options, and specimen type. Maybe this search is inconsequential for others, but for me it was thought provoking and expository. R left much of the donor selection up to me, I think partly because it was overwhelming for her and partly because it gave me some power. Power is not quite the word I’m looking for, and may be a bit off-putting to you. But in some ways this process has been a power struggle: me vs. my own body, my biological clock vs. R’s, our relationship vs. a heteronormative society, time vs. biology.

I’ve already touched on some of these struggles, but let me briefly address the tug of war between me and my body. I had always hoped to carry a child. I love children, and I love the idea of being pregnant. Sadly while I have a strong maternal instinct, I have weak reproductive capacity. Many well meaning friends have told me that being pregnant is overrated, but it’s still terribly sad to know I’ll never carry a child. From my perspective, infertility means missing more than a big belly and swollen ankles. It means missing breast feeding, and the bonding that comes with it. More importantly, it means rethinking my role, and shifting my vision of self as mother from being the bleary eyed woman in the hospital gown, fresh from the victory of birth to being the person standing beside the bleary eyed woman.  It took some time to adjust to a different vision, and the nature of my role as non-birth mother is still a little mercurial. And though I have no doubt that I will think of myself as Bean’s mom, I know that some other people will persist in asking ‘But who’s the real mom?’ and sometimes that makes me feel powerless. So, focusing on selecting the donor sort of returned some power to me.

The subject of race featured prominently in our discussions about donor preferences. Was it racist to filter out donors whose ethnic and racial background did not match ours? Was it naive to choose a non-white donor? Does the color of our child’s skin really matter? I talked through these questions with friends of many different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and got a pretty wide range of opinions on the subject. Ultimately, a combination of  conversations with friends, reading articles like this one from The Stranger, and combing through online forum posts about donor selection combined to tip the balance toward choosing a donor whose ethnic and racial background matched ours.

The Stranger article takes aim at white folks who adopt children of color and ignore the fact that their children have different life experiences in our decidedly NOT post racial society. She fires at people who claim to be “color blind” because ignoring race is more comfortable than confronting racism, and harangues whites who adopt children of color and then insulate (or isolate) them in white neighborhoods and among white extended families. I don’t think the author or the adoptees she interviewed are calling for an end to transracial adoptions. I think they simply want white folks to think twice before adopting a child of color, e.g.

“What I’d ask parents is, are you willing to be the uncomfortable one?” Goller-Sojourner says. This is how he’d question a prospective parent if he were a social worker. “Because somebody’s gonna be uncomfortable, and it seems the burden is on you. You have to be the uncomfortable one.” He means that if white parents of black children, for instance, don’t live in black neighborhoods, join black churches, have black friends, and send their children to significantly mixed-race schools, then at least they should cross the thresholds into black barbershops even though it’s awkward, or drive out of their way to shop at grocery stores in black neighborhoods. Parents should be careful to raise their children to live in this world, not the one they wish existed.”

The article, like it or not, raises a lot of great questions, and I found myself considering its implications for choosing to create a transracial family compared with becoming one by adopting a child of a different race. I also read a heated debate posted to the online forum for families who are trying to conceive with donor sperm from a local cryobank. A single white woman posted a question about whether it is ‘weird’ to choose a Chinese donor, which she wants to do because she always wanted to adopt an unwanted baby girl from China (costs and legal regulations prevent her from doing so). Several women of color, including one Chinese American woman, replied to her with honest and thoughtful answers, imploring her to give the decision careful thought and to try to understand that her child may face unnecessary discrimination from whites and Asian Americans. The comments were offered from personal experience, and what could have been a fruitful discussion devolved into an argument that was ultimately cut short by the forum moderators. The white woman attacked anyone who suggested that it is not a great idea to pick a donor of another race for the sake of having a baby who reflects an ‘admirable’ or ‘fascinating’ culture, or because the baby will be ‘cute.’ I thought the responses were well reasoned and in line with the outcomes of our discussions with friends and reading, all of which suggested that we should look for a donor who reflects our racial and ethnic background.

I began cruising the websites of the big cryobanks, looking for the perfect donor–someone with decent answers to the essay questions and a profile that screams “science nerd!” When reading the answers to short essay questions like “What made you want to become a donor?” and “What advice would you give to the recipients of your donation?” being mindful of the fact that the donor is likely a college student in his late teens or early twenties helps keep the answers in perspective. To the first question, most donors say something about wanting to do good and make money at the same time. To the second, the most common answer is “good luck!!!”

After an inordinate amount of time searching, I found Perfect Donor, a man with sensitive and intelligent answers to the essay questions, musical inclinations, and an interest in political science. R liked his short profile, so we paid to see the full profile, which includes a complete family history and some additional information about his SAT scores and hobbies. He seemed really likeable, smart, and a little quirky. Unfortunately he was not listed as an “open ID” donor, which means that at this point he has no interest in meeting Bean when she turns 18, but since open ID donors can change their minds at any time, we figured it’s best to consider other desirable traits. PD seemed perfect indeed, but we lacked one piece of information to confirm our choice–a photograph. Most of the larger banks have photos of the donor as a child or an adult, or at least a silhouette of his face. PD is not affiliated with one of these banks, and so there was no photograph or silhouette of his face. It seemed weird to select someone we couldn’t picture, and so we got cold feet and ‘cheated’ on PD.

We found Almost Perfect Donor–a physician (whose sperm cost is commensurate with education!) who likes to cook, admires his mom, and was a pretty adorable child. We decided to use him, and I caught myself staring at his picture several times per day, trying to imagine Bean as a cross between APD and R. Our initial attempts failed, and we felt compelled to rethink our decision. We took another look at PD and I just knew he was the one for us. After waiting three months to make sure R won’t be too pregnant or Bean too little to fly to R’s sister’s wedding in the fall, we returned to PD. Last week we made attempt number 3 at planting The Bean. I hope she’s taking root.