Abstract and Keywords
This chapter introduces the concept of networks of strangers linked by reliance on the same sperm donor. It draws on participants’ use of the language of genes and the language of choice to explain how these networks develop. Because the relationships within these networks are unprecedented, the members have to decide for themselves naming conventions and social norms. The introduction suggests the importance of these relationships at a time when family size is shrinking. It includes a discussion of research methods, describing how the authors located respondents and the characteristics of respondents (212 parents and 154 donor-conceived children). It also explains how the authors chose to feature particular networks that reflected different eras, different age groups of children, and different internal dynamics.
Margo’s son, Spencer, was eager to show us the family tree he had composed as a class project.* Like many twelve-year-olds in suburban Chicago, he had been asked to depict his genealogy, but unlike his classmates’ diagrams, his wasn’t exactly symmetrical. The top of the poster had a familiar branch shape that grew wider with each generation. However, the bottom had just one very long branch—labeled Margo (his single mom) and “X” (the donor). Beneath this branch were seventeen separate twigs, each corresponding to one of the donor’s offspring.1 Spencer proudly listed himself the first of the seventeen, but as he pointed out, “We don’t know how many there’ll be eventually.”
Jennifer and Leslie, partners in a same-sex couple, were in their early thirties when they decided to have a child. Initially overwhelmed by the range of options available from a sperm bank they had found on the internet, they prioritized what they wanted in a donor: someone who would agree to have his identity released when their child turned eighteen, who would not be uncomfortable meeting the child of lesbian parents, and who would look a little bit like Leslie so that she would be represented in the child. Had they started down this path in 1992 or even 2002, Jennifer and Leslie would not have had many choices. But in 2012 when Callie was conceived, sperm banks were entirely receptive to same-sex couples. By the time we interviewed them several years later, Jennifer and Leslie had met five families who shared the same donor, and Leslie was actively planning a summer gathering near their home in Minnesota.
Abigail and Don were high school sweethearts who learned after many frustrating years of failed attempts at pregnancy that Don was sterile. It was 1995, and agency fees and legal bills put adoption well beyond their means. (p.2) Fortuitously, Abigail’s family doctor offered another option: for $500 (at that time), they could purchase two numbered vials of sperm and she could be inseminated in his office. Buoyed by assurances that the sperm came from a reputable source, they asked no more questions and went ahead with high hopes. Eighteen years later, to Abigail and Don’s surprise, their teenage son Scott stumbled on an online registry through which he could locate other people who shared his donor number. Privately, Abigail and Don debated what to do: pursue more information themselves or leave it to him to decide. They finally opted to give him a birthday present of a year’s membership in this registry. “It’s your call, Scott,” Don said. “You decide if and when you want to know more.” Eleven months slipped by before he made his choice and then, remarkably, within thirty minutes of going online Scott made contact with one of his donor siblings.2 Within days, a young man from Arkansas, who had been an only child for eighteen years, found himself introduced via Facebook to a national web of children and adults.
THESE THREE FAMILIES that vary in structure (single mom and same-sex and heterosexual couples) and circumstance share some very important and quite novel experiences. They represent several of the major transformations that have occurred in modern life through the use of donated reproductive gametes. First, because they were able to conceive their children by purchasing vials of sperm from a sperm bank, each now enjoys the intimate rewards of a parent-and-child relationship based, at least in part, on a genetic link.3 Heterosexual couples were the primary users of sperm banks in the mid- to late twentieth century.4 Today, the members of a wide range of families—including Margo, Jennifer and Leslie, and Abigail and Don—find themselves welcome to acquire donated gametes, including eggs, sperm, and whole embryos.5 Second, disclosure to children (and others) about reliance on a donor is commonplace among all kinds of families and even among those (like Abigail and Don, and Margo) who could have concealed that fact.6 In these three families, parents and children openly discussed the donor.
Third, and even more unexpected, all three of these families are currently embedded in networks of “donor siblings” structured around relationships that originate from genetic links alone. Most of the early users of sperm banks were unlikely to know who the donor was; none could know anyone else who had relied on the same sperm bank donor. As part of the (p.3) move toward greater openness, identity-release donors—individuals who agree to some form of contact when a donor-conceived offspring turns eighteen—are available through most sperm banks. And, most surprising, contact with a child’s genetic strangers from the sperm side (“donor siblings” and their parents) can be made even before a child’s birth. That is, once parents have purchased a vial of sperm from a particular donor, they can use the unique number assigned by the bank to begin to locate others who purchased sperm from the same donor. The donor number itself thus becomes the mechanism for organizing activities that lead to meeting a child’s donor siblings. (Soon these activities may be available also to those who use donated eggs and those who acquire whole embryos.)
As a result of these events, all three families are engaged in figuring out what it means to be part of a donor sibling network—something that is in many ways not only unprecedented but also uncertain. We began this research well aware of these events. What we did not know was how parents and their children would respond to the brand-new possibility of incorporating the parents of the donor siblings, the donor siblings, and sometimes even the donor himself into their lives. Nor did we know what kind of relationships they would forge with these strangers.
In this book we explore these unprecedented relationships as they emerge from networks of strangers linked by genes, medical technology, and the human desire for affinity and identity. We chronicle the chain of choices that parents make—from conceiving with donors through deciding what to do when it suddenly becomes clear that there are children out there who live in other families but share half their child’s DNA. And we ask what happens next. Do parents and children believe shared genes make you family? Do children look for and find anything in common with their donor siblings? What happens within the networks that arise once parents and donor siblings find and meet one another? To answer these—and related—questions we traveled across the United States interviewing parents and their donor-conceived children. We draw on interviews with 212 parents and 154 donor-conceived children (aged ten and older).
We show that when these networks of genetic strangers emerge, they sometimes prove to be meaningful to children and parents. Some have blossomed into lively and long-standing Facebook groups of people who hold regular “reunions” and enjoy close friendships.7 Others, however, simply contain a roster of members in an online directory. Whatever variations exist, each of the networks creates opportunities to make meaning (p.4) out of connections that begin when parents with no preexisting relationship to each other happen to purchase vials of sperm from the same donor. Even in a world in which kinship has become more voluntary, this sequence of a random group of parents finding each other and telling their children about their genetic relatives, and then parents and children getting to know one another on the basis of shared genes is a startlingly new occurrence. We focus our inquiry on the conditions determining whether and how genetic strangers understand and use one another to create meaningful and enduring forms of social organization.
We refer to donors, donor siblings, and their families as “genetic strangers” as a way to bind together something that usually connotes familiarity with something that symbolizes the opposite.8 On the one hand, nothing could be more familiar than the notion that kinship is created by the genes that flow in the blood (or are contained in a vial of sperm). On the other hand, nothing could be more peculiar than to learn (in some cases suddenly) that one member of a family shares half her genes with a gaggle of unknown “others” who cannot be placed on any known shape of a family tree. And this is precisely the case here: before interaction, the members of these networks are bound by genes and are strangers to one another. As strangers they might create particular unease for one another, even in a world in which the internet provides numerous opportunities for us to become intimate with people we do not know well and may never have met.
We also intentionally use the generic term “network” rather than the term “extended family” as a starting point to describe the groups that emerge. The only thing that originally linked the members is that they relied on (or believe they relied on) the same donor gametes.9 By way of contrast, an extended family is a tangle of long-standing relationships into which one is born or married, like it or not. Whereas some people completely dismiss the notion that genes create kinship, the members of donor sibling networks often start out believing that they now have new relatives. In fact, when bonds do emerge it is because people have gone beyond their ideas about the significance of genes as the taken-for-granted basis for the creation of kinship and moved on to use them to create intimacy.10 The traits that appear to be common among the donor siblings and between a donor and his or her offspring merely start a conversation. Sometimes that conversation ends quickly, without creating any new (p.5) connections. But the conversation may also lead to the choice to form an entirely new kind of voluntary family.
Genes Start Kinship: Genetic Conversations
We are at a particular moment in history when public opinion leans toward the belief that genes are determinants of looks, behavior, and personality.11 Public opinion also holds that genes create kinship. Genetic testing sites rest on, and promulgate, both of these beliefs; their recent growth is evidence of the popularity of these ideas. For a ninety-nine-dollar membership on 23andMe, that site tells us, you can “experience your ancestry in a new way!” For another hundred dollars you can “get an even more comprehensive understanding of your genetics. Receive 75 + online reports on your ancestry, traits and health—and more.” AncestryDNA offers something even “better” for only seventy-nine dollars: “The DNA test that tells a more complete story of you. AncestryDNA provides richer connections to people, places, and possibilities.”12
When people (like those in our introductory sketches) make the decision to sign up on a registry in order to contact genetic strangers, they are operating on the basis of one—or both—of these beliefs. But whatever consequences genes may actually have, they shape identity and create relationships only through socially constructed understandings. For most people, knowledge about the operation of genes stops with what they have learned in high school or college biology.
Those who choose a sperm donor and then sign up on a registry to interact with genetic strangers open conversations that rest on a cultural narrative about the significance of genes. We want to understand how parents and children use this cultural narrative. For instance, when deciding among alternative sperm donor profiles, do parents believe that purchasing sperm from a man who is in law school will ensure that they give birth to a smart child? Similarly, we want to understand how children develop a self-identity when one of their biological parents is an anonymous sperm donor. How does a donor-conceived child understand the origins of her athletic ability? Does knowing that a donor came from Scotland make a child believe that he is Scottish?
When genetic strangers interact with each other, we want to know what they say about whether genes create resemblances among the children. (p.6) Do people find a shared physical appearance or personality among the children who have the same donor? What do parents and children say about similarities and differences? Finally, as we explore these topics, we are especially attentive to the possible emergence of a sense of relatedness between the donor and his donor offspring, among donor siblings, and among the parents of these donor siblings. Do participants in these networks think that children who share a donor but are raised in separate families are some form of kin? What expectations and obligations develop from the interactions among these various parties?
In our analysis of these issues we do not consider what geneticists or sociobiologists might say; we focus on what the people we interviewed believe and how they act on those beliefs. In short, our interest is in these various uses to which ideas about genes are put as those ideas underwrite a variety of actions: the choice of a donor by parents, the ways a child imagines her own identity in relation to that of the donor, the perception (or not) of similarities, and the manner in which people relate to people who start out as genetic strangers. We are interested as well in how these ideas circulate within individual networks and influence the relationships that develop there.
Kinship in Choice: Voluntary Families
As we will see in this book, as much as people point to genes as being shared with a parent, a donor, or a donor sibling and then claim resemblance and family membership on that basis, it is their wish to affiliate with others that gives rise to these creative inventions. At one level, this is no surprise. Both the “families of choice” described by Kath Weston and the “fictive kinship” described by Carol Stack are testimonies to the importance of voluntary “kin” ties.13 But the choice in these relationships is quite different from other sets of “chosen” kin. This difference applies both to the issue of the donor and to the issue of donor siblings and their parents.
Choice and the “Problem” of a Donor
The parents in these networks initially choose a donor from among the available options because they believe his genes will not prevent their establishing a connection with their own children. That donor, however, (p.7) is neither an emotional nor a social partner for them. He has no understandable role to play in any family created by parents relying on donor conception; he is nothing more than a vial of sperm.14 Single mothers who are heterosexual often leave space for getting married in the future and thus eventually having an exclusively social father for their children.15 The members of lesbian couples already have partners; so too do the members of heterosexual couples. All these parents are opting (whether out of unfettered choice or not) to challenge the equation of biological with social parenthood. But they are decidedly not making a calculated decision to create new boundaries for their families; for all those we interviewed, family membership is contained within the “nuclear” unit of acting parents and their children.16 Moreover, although we discuss the donor in terms of “choice,” we might note that these choices are constrained. Parents purchasing sperm have to depend on the market that determines what is available (chapter 1).17 Parents who want contact with a donor—for themselves or their children—have to depend on what the donor himself chooses to do.
Of course, no more than any other child do donor-conceived children either choose to be born or choose their biological parents. And, like other children, they learn that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. (In chapter 2, we discuss how the sex education curriculum is insufficient for donor-conceived children.) Yet the donor, or the man whose sperm helped create them, is absent.18 Parents selected him. Children may not initially understand what a donor is; they may also have a need to understand which genetic part of themselves came from the donor. And if children later opt for—and attain—contact with him, they cannot by themselves dictate the terms of that contact. (See especially chapters 4 and 7.) Boys and girls confront similar issues in these regards even if occasionally they differ in how they resolve those issues for themselves. For example, as we show in chapter 2, girls tend to be more imaginative than boys in their invention of the donor; girls also appear to use the donor more actively in a process of separation from their parents.
Choice and the “Problem” of Donor Siblings
Scholars who write about “voluntary” kin ties describe them as being close and supportive relationships. Carol Stack, for example, explains fictive (p.8) kinship as emerging within a community among people who help each other out in both material and nonmaterial ways. Kath Weston describes the intimacy that developed within tight networks of gays and lesbians who formed strong friendships that become their families of choice, especially when traditional kin rejected them. As is true of these other relationships, the creation of chosen kin in networks of donor siblings begins with a decision to reach out to others (chapter 3). But these others are not people one knows: they are random families who just happened to have selected the same donor out of the available pool. They may live close to one another or they may be divided by geographic distances. They may be socially similar to each other, but they may also differ in family form, social class, race/ethnicity, religion, and values. Although the parents and children manage to find deep (even mystical) reasons to explain why they have come together, the affiliation begins with entirely separate purchases of the same genetic material. Biology—not sociability—opens the connection.
New Types of Voluntary Families in Contemporary Times
When parents choose to interact with the families of donor siblings, they are creating a kind of “kin” that is both “voluntary” and unusual. They and their children suddenly have a set of previously unexperienced “relatives.” And although for anyone the discovery of a new relative can be an eye-opener, for most people those relationships are usually pretty easy to sort out. There is both the language with which to describe even the most distant relation and existing social norms that dictate behavior.
Genetic strangers encounter something quite different. They have no easy labels (like “aunt”) or familiar measures of distance (like “second cousin, once removed”); they share no ancestors with a designated kin term who can serve as landmarks for the relationship. They have only a shared number assigned to the donor by a sperm bank. They might initially try to squeeze themselves into familiar, preexisting kinship terms to suggest models for interactions. That is, not surprisingly, when they are thrust into this novel situation, parents and children struggle to find a foothold of familiarity. For example, they try out the language of “half-sister” or “sibling.” Children also often draw on categories that exist within (p.9) “ordinary” families—categories like birth order—to help them understand where they stand in relation to others. But they do so in the absence of any actual family context. The terms both make good sense and make no sense at all. That is, as genetic strangers push themselves into these older concepts, they find they have to break out of them as well.
Perhaps even more significantly, the available models for interaction are clearly insufficient. As they do with language, parents and children initially draw on the categories that are already available to them. This is not all that different from what we all do when we encounter new people or a new situation. That is, as just about anyone would do, they try to figure out what properties (and ideas and ways of interacting) of this new situation are shared with what they have already experienced. For example, when the family members of a donor sibling network get together, they describe the occasion as a “reunion.” (See the definition of this term in chapter 6.) Yet, unlike people joining together at a reunion of kinfolk, they have no shared memories or family traditions on which to draw.
To be sure, the links within a donor sibling network might have the same structural form as do the links among women who have children with the same biological father. Low-income single mothers often live in communities where other women have children with the same man.19 Similarly, women whose divorced husbands subsequently remarry and have more children might share with the new wives the parenting of half- or stepsiblings. In both of these situations the social norms surrounding the women’s relationships to each other, the combination of mothering and stepmothering roles, and the children’s relationships to one another are still murky; the social rules for interaction are not institutionalized.20
However, in both of these more familiar situations, the connections are created through relationships with the same known man. They are not random. Moreover, the women might start out as adversaries, especially because several women have had sex with the same man and because separate families have to divide the resources of time with children and the support that a single father can provide. By way of contrast, the parents of donor siblings have no reason to regard each other as adversaries. Four other facts establish the difference. First, no legal obligations exist among the parents in donor sibling networks. Second, a far greater (p.10) number of families are joined together within the networks of donor siblings. Third, even on those rare occasions when the families of donor siblings live near each other, unless they already know about each other, neither the mothers nor the children are likely to recognize one another when they do grocery shopping or attend church. Finally, the women in donor sibling networks have a rough parity because, at least at the moment of choice, none of them has a relationship with the donor. In spite of these differences, a central similarity remains: donor sibling networks are also almost entirely composed of women and children. Whether hegemonic ideas about gender in kinship persist even without the “father” is an empirical question we consider as we explore the networks that emerge.
The experience of children within a donor sibling network might also have an analogy in the experience of children placed for adoption. These children may wonder about biological relatives (parents and siblings) when they are unknown; they may have no easy language or models for interactions if they do meet. Moreover, the latter experience—of meeting—is becoming more likely. Within both the world of donor conception and the world of adoption a new interest in openness prevails.21 In both worlds choice is crucial: some individuals seek contact with “genetic relatives” and some do not. It is also likely that children who have been donor conceived and children who have been adopted might have very similar reactions to meeting their genetic relatives; people in both groups might be astonished by what they perceive to be similarities and differences between themselves and people with whom they have a genetic connection. In these ways, the two worlds are much alike.22 In other ways, the two sets of experiences differ sharply. A major difference is that a birth parent is raising a donor-conceived child, either alone or as a member of a couple. An additional issue has to do with numbers of “found” relatives. Usually only two families (and their extended kin) are involved in the connections formed through open adoption; by way of contrast the networks among the families of donor-conceived offspring can involve many different families (and their extended kin). As a result, in all likelihood, children who have been placed for adoption find fewer new genetic siblings than do children conceived with donor sperm; in the latter case the number of genetic strangers with whom one connects can extend to over fifty.23
(p.11) As these other examples demonstrate, although the children within the networks are called “donor siblings,” they are a novel form of sibling: these siblings come from outside and live elsewhere. Scholars tell us that “ordinary” siblings help in the process of constructing identity: as siblings compare themselves to each other, identifying similarities and differences, they discover who they are and who they are not.24 Of course family life can provide many different types: full genetic siblings, half-genetic siblings, stepsiblings, siblings created through adoption, and siblings whose two moms each had a child with different donors. Each type can offer its own set of opportunities for interaction; those opportunities include role models, friends, rivals, collaborators, and enemies; siblings might also be important resources for emotional and material support.25 As we show in what follows, donor siblings provide some quite similar and some quite different opportunities for children.
As their members figure out what to do and how to respond to each other, donor sibling networks join the ranks of new family forms that need to create for themselves normative structures and institutional support. Donor sibling networks are particularly interesting within these ranks because they are created by choice and yet build on connections that are purely genetic in their origin. They are also particularly interesting because unlike the situation in some other new family forms, the connection itself derives from something shared by the children alone—both to each other and to a donor who is an outsider to each natal family and thus to the network itself. Not surprisingly, then, the parents and the children sometimes have quite different interests in and concerns about these affiliations; they also sometimes secure quite different benefits and face quite different problems.
Shrinking and Thinning Families
Even so, both parents and children have reasons to pursue these relationships. Indeed, the kind of relationships that networks of genetic strangers offer might be particularly important because of recent social change. Families are shrinking in size no matter what form the family takes. In 1960, the total fertility rate per woman in the United States was 3.7 children; today, the average American woman is expected to have 1.9 children. The average family size has also dropped from 3.14 individuals in 1970 to (p.12) 2.54 individuals in 2017.26 For single mothers who have relied on donor conception, small families are especially an issue. Not only are they likely to have fewer children than the members of two-parent households, but they and their children only have one lineage from which to draw to create an extended family.27 Moreover, as many sociologists have noted, mobility (especially among those who are more privileged in this society) means that people may not live close to the members of their extended family.28
Shrinking families result in generational “thinning.” A few generations back it was not uncommon to find families of close to half a dozen children, each of whom produced their own children and grandchildren, creating a host of relatives on a family tree that widened in each subsequent generation. Smaller families in each generation now produce considerably thinned branches; instead of widening, the family tree tapers. These changes are especially significant in a society with a minimal safety net because under those conditions people who can be considered “kin” might be the only source for important social, emotional, and material benefits.29
Donor-conceived families are in a prime position to expand the set of kinfolk on whom they might rely. Ironically, in doing so, parents who defy convention by making an unusual set of choices about how to create family often end up having to deal with some very conventional issues about who belongs in their family. Moreover, donor siblings may pose a challenge to the two-parent model that usually assigns related children to the same household. Of course those parents and children who want to regard the donor as simply a mechanism for creating a child can, if they want, avoid these complexities. But those who venture into the land of donor siblings—a land in which the donor might appear along with the other new relatives—solve some problems (such as offering up genetic kin from the paternal side) but raise the complexities of figuring out how to make sense of a new kind of kin.
Locating Our Respondents
Families who conceive through the use of a donor or donors are what sociologists call a “hidden population.” Public agencies do not keep track of sperm donor use or the number of offspring produced through sales at sperm banks, and while the US Census Bureau is interested in fertility, it does not ask questions about conception.30 Thus, as we considered whom (p.13) to interview, a random sample was out of the question. Nonetheless, we had reason to believe that the population of families with donor-conceived children had grown considerably. After all, the fertility industry has mushroomed in the last four decades; it now serves a variety of individuals (single mothers) and couples (in two-mother families) who once had trouble accessing gametes.31 The question for us became one of how to find a way into this population.32 Little did we know at the time that we would eventually come to focus on a circle within a circle: the membership within the networks that connected families with donor offspring.
As might be expected, we began by exploring known territory. Because we had been conducting research within the single mothers’ community for over twenty-five years, we had ties to a variety of organizations across the United States and, for several of those organizations, ties to local affiliates in the Boston area. Some organizations gave us access to their mailing lists; others posted announcements about our research to their Facebook pages or websites. In order to ensure that we were reaching the LGBTQ population, we also leafleted at Gay Pride events, including family weekends and other marches we regularly attended. On the emails and leaflets we wrote: “We are seeking families to participate in a research study about ‘donor-conceived families.’ We are looking to understand how parents and their children (over age 10 and young adults in their 20s and 30s) think about being donor-conceived. We are also interested in understanding how parents and children think about donors and donor siblings and what place, if any, they may have in your life. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation.”33 This snowball approach helped us locate our first wave of parents and children, many of whom were based in the Boston area. Those interviews, in turn, alerted us to the families that, having discovered they shared the same donor, had gone on to create networks.
A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) made it possible for us to travel to seven states (and the District of Columbia) in our effort to maximize the diversity of our respondent group. Within each state we selected major metropolitan areas as our research sites, traveling to respondents who lived within a radius of three hours from the city center.
(p.14) We chose several of our research sites because of their historical relationships to the rise of the fertility industry as a big business.34 For example, we traveled to California to interview some of the first families to use anonymous donors. San Francisco is also a major home to several well-known women’s collectives that helped lesbian parents and single mothers have children when the large banks were primarily serving heterosexual couples.35 Another site, Boston, also has a well-known clinic that helped lesbian couples in the early years of sperm-freezing.36 Further, California and the Washington, DC, area house two of the largest national sperm banks in the United States, while the other areas offer regional banks. We traveled to several research sites in Texas because we wanted a location in which donor conception (whether by single women or women in two-mother families) might be less socially acceptable.
As part of our strategy, we also focused on metropolitan areas that organizational databases had indicated contained significant numbers of single moms or lesbian couples (California, Massachusetts, and the DC area, including Maryland and Virginia). Jane Mattes, the founder of the Single Mothers by Choice organization, also pointed us to sites outside of the two coasts with the largest number of single mothers that her organization has identified over the course of its thirty-five-year history.37 We relied on that information to select Minnesota, traveling to Minneapolis and its suburbs. Initially, we chose our respondents to reflect variations in family type and children’s ages. We expected to interview family members about their donor siblings, unaware that we would be able to interview donor siblings within the same network. (Part I of the book reflects this variety regardless of whether or not the members of each family had contact with donor siblings.) However, from the very first interviews we conducted in Massachusetts, both parents and teens in these families offered to connect us with their donor siblings. That is, we discovered networks after we began our research.
Once alerted to the fact that some families belonged to networks created through reliance on the same donor, we extended our research strategy to include those additional respondents. This new strategy allowed us to reach the circle within the circle, a group within the same network. As a result, in each age group of the children (early teens, high school students, and post–high school kids, most of whom are in college) we were able to interview families that were linked by a sperm donor. All (p.15) in all, we interviewed at least two families in twenty-five different linked networks; the total number of these linked individual families is seventy-six. (These networks are the focus of Part II of the book.) While not all of our respondents have had face-to-face contact with other families in person, in all of the networks featured in Part II, the majority of members have met offline at least once.
To better understand the context in which families and networks existed, we asked to join online forums to which our respondents belonged (such as several Single Mothers by Choice forums) and Facebook private pages that the networks had created. The openness of our respondents enabled us to observe networks groups “in vivo” and to learn how the group might have changed from when we interviewed members. (See appendix B for more detail.)
At the end of the first year of data collection we realized that we had networks that reflected different eras, different age groups of children, and different internal dynamics. Different eras allowed us to look at changes in the history of the fertility industry: the families we interviewed had purchased gametes under different conditions, such as having more or less information about the donor; they also had different possibilities for making contact with donor siblings. Different eras also allowed us to look at families at the forefront of the lesbian baby boom and at families for whom that family form had become far more routine.
Different age groups of children gave us the opportunity to learn about changes in children’s understanding of what it meant to be donor conceived and in their reactions to encountering donor siblings. Yet donor siblings also turn out to be close in age within each network. For instance, a hypothetical network would consist of four children who are fifteen years old, three who are fourteen years old, and three who are thirteen years old. There might be another child who is twelve and two children who are eleven, each of whom has older siblings in the same nuclear family.
And finally, different internal dynamics of the networks themselves became evident once we had enough networks to actually document those differences. Four of the featured networks that include children ages ten (p.16) and older have existed for approximately the same length of time (about thirteen years). They all formed in the early part of the twenty-first century when independent registries began. Yet each network has children who met at different ages. The dispersion among networks allowed us to compare how the children’s ages influence internal group dynamics.
Once we had firmed up our network typology in the first year of the study, we asked respondents in specific networks to help us locate others in their group. We were fortunate that the members we had met in the first cities we visited were excited about the project and willing to vouch for us.38 As soon as we had selected a number of different networks (not all of which are featured in this book), we were able to watch each one grow in size and observe network dynamics unfold. Even though we knew that membership depended on the fertility industry and that present membership was not fixed in size, we were always surprised when new members came forward. And usually new members arrived just as we thought that a particular network had reached the saturation point established by the bank-imposed limits on the number of offspring per donor. We came to learn that the arrival of new members was a routine feature of these networks. The youngest network (with children under the age of five) we chose as a focus in the second year of our data collection. We selected this group because it was in the early formation stages and we could capture “in motion” parents’ discussions about their first planned gathering.
Features of the Respondents
The 212 parents we interviewed ranged in age from thirty-two to eighty-five; the vast majority (92 percent) self-reported as women. Among the separate families at the time of the interview, over half (58 percent) were headed by a single parent, 23 percent were headed by two women, and the remaining 20 percent were headed by both a man and a woman. Total incomes within these households ranged widely, from a low of $12,000 a year to a high of over a million dollars, with a median of about $138,000. The youngest parent we interviewed was thirty-two; the oldest was eighty-five. Among the 154 children we interviewed the youngest was ten; the (p.17) oldest was twenty-nine. About half (51 percent) were girls.39 Seventy-nine percent of these children knew about a donor sibling, whether or not they had contact with that sibling. In addition to parents and children, we interviewed 12 donors and 10 other individuals related to the children. Altogether we interviewed 388 people for this study. (See appendix A for more information about the sample characteristics and appendix B for more information about how we conducted our interviews.)
The book is divided into two major parts. In Part I we explore the conditions that enable contact among donor siblings and the general patterns that emerge among the actors in these stories. We demonstrate how the parents—one set of actors—choose donors for their children (chapter 1) and then how they make the decision to involve themselves in networks of genetic strangers (chapter 3). We also demonstrate how the children—the other set of actors—make sense, at different stages in their own development, of what a donor is and construct their own ideas about how the influence of the donor is relevant in their daily lives (chapter 2); our focus on the children turns as well to the ways in which they come to understand the social meaning of the genetic bonds they have to their donor siblings (chapter 4). In Part II we put these two sets of actors together in networks of parents and children (chapters 5 to 10). We demonstrate how these actors perform in conjunction with each other when they are brought together within a network of donor siblings and, in some cases, with the donor himself.
The exchange of sperm that begins the process of network formation begins as a market transaction. The people we describe in this book do something constructive with that transaction. And perhaps they have good reason for doing so. Now that the family tree has begun to thin, people cannot so readily rely on traditional forms of kinship; the people who rely on donor conception, however, can take unique steps to counteract generational thinning, creating for themselves and their children whole new sets of “relatives.” Unlike the unknown donor who is a paper (p.18) profile, the donor siblings are full of life—real human beings—who might offer a new kind of connection. In what follows, we explore how two sets of social attitudes—attitudes toward kinship based in genes and attitudes toward kinship based in choice—precipitate, shape, and are shaped by the novel interactions that are the byproduct of contact with genetic strangers.
(*) All names in this book are pseudonyms. We have sometimes altered specific features of an individual (e.g., place of residence or occupation) to conceal the person’s identity.
(1.) See Part II for illustrations that are renditions of this and other networks. Spencer and his mother Margo are featured in chapter 8, “Connected Soul Mates.” Jennifer, Leslie, and Callie are part of chapter 9, “Social Capitalists.” Scott, Abigail, and Don appear in chapter 6, “The 7008 Builders.”
(3.) Curiously enough, no one keeps track of how many babies are born through the use of donated sperm. Various agencies do keep track of the number of babies born as a result of IVF and related technologies. That number has now reached an estimated 6.5 million worldwide. This estimate includes all babies created with IVF or related technologies regardless of whether or not donor gametes were used. See ESHRE, “6.5 Million IVF Babies since Louise Brown,” Focus on Reproduction, the Blog of ESHRE’s Magazine, July 5, 2016. Leena Nahata, Nathanael Stanley, and Gwendolyn Quinn (“Gamete Donation: Current Practices, Public Opinion, and Unanswered Questions,” Fertility and Sterility 107, no. 6 : 1298) acknowledge that any numbers are “merely estimates and are likely to be poor estimates because there are few tracking systems.” Evidence suggests that in the last thirty years, there has been an increase in the demand for sperm donors in the United States, and there is a large unmet demand in parts of the European Union and the United Kingdom. See Glenn Cohen, Travis Coan, Michelle Ottey, and Christina Boyd, “Sperm Donor Anonymity and Compensation: An (p.244) Experiment with American Sperm Donors,” Journal of Law and the Biosciences 3, no. 3 (December 1, 2016): 468–88.
(4.) New techniques of IVF and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) have reduced the need for heterosexual couples to turn to sperm donation. ICSI has a high rate of fertilization (75–85 percent of injected eggs). Since this procedure is more expensive than purchasing sperm, the use of these procedures is often associated with middle-class families or families located in states with fertility coverage. See Naomi R. Cahn, The New Kinship: Constructing Donor-Conceived Families (New York: New York University Press, 2013). The members of heterosexual couples in this study report that either this procedure was not available at the time the couple was trying to conceive or that, among the younger heterosexual couples, the male partner did not qualify for ICSI.
(5.) For discussions of changing clientele at sperm banks, see Laura Mamo and Eli Alston-Stepnitz, “Queer Intimacies and Structural Inequalities: New Directions in Stratified Reproduction,” Journal of Family Issues 36, no. 4 (March 1, 2015): 519–40; for estimates that today 50 percent of the US recipients are single women and 33 percent are same-sex or transgender couples, see Nahata, Stanley, and Quinn, “Gamete Donation,” 1298–99.
(6.) Norms surrounding disclosure have changed within the industry. Whereas people who received donor gametes were previously told to conceal that fact, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, disclosure to young children is now the “recommendation.” Without disclosure there could be no contact between donors and offspring and no donor sibling networks. On these issues see Diane Ehrensaft, Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families (New York: Guilford Press, 2005); Tabitha Freeman and Susan Golombok, “Donor Insemination: A Follow-Up Study of Disclosure Decisions, Family Relationships and Child Adjustment at Adolescence,” Reproductive BioMedicine Online 25, no. 2 (2012): 193–203; Susan Golombok, “Families Created by Reproductive Donation: Issues and Research,” Child Development Perspectives 7, no. 1 (2013): 61–65; Susan Golombok, “Disclosure and Donor-Conceived Children,” Human Reproduction 32, no. 7 (July 1, 2017): 1532–36; Susan Golombok et al., “Children Conceived by Gamete Donation: Psychological Adjustment and Mother-Child Relationships at Age 7,” Journal of Family Psychology 25, no. 2 (2011): 230; Vasanti Jadva et al., “The Experiences of Adolescents and Adults Conceived by Sperm Donation: Comparisons by Age of Disclosure and Family Type,” Human Reproduction 24 (2009): 1909–19; Sophie Zadeh, “Disclosure of Donor Conception in the Era of Non-anonymity: Safeguarding and Promoting the Interests of Donor-Conceived Individuals?,” Human Reproduction 31, no. 11 (November 1, 2016): 2416–20.
(8.) We have called the network members “genetic strangers.” And before any form of interaction, they are strangers to one another. While a stranger can always be introduced to the members of a group (or community), the meaning of a stranger has changed over time. A stranger is now both more familiar and less threatening. A stranger is no longer a whole person who was an outsider to the village and therefore usually suspect. On these issues, see Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. Kurt Wolff (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1950); Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990). The members of donor sibling networks are modern strangers in a modern world, a world in which we often interact with people we do not know well and may never have met. The internet thus extends our acceptance of strangers who we believe can provide us with a sense of belonging, advice, and perhaps even intimacy. In the case of people relying on, or born by means of, sperm bank-donated gametes, some kinds of strangers might create special unease because they have in common something intensely intimate. Even so, donor siblings may also help parents and children counter the “strangeness” of the unknown donor.
(9.) No one with whom we spoke actually did DNA testing to find out if the other individuals who reported conception with the same donor number were actually genetic relatives. For a discussion, drawing on a UK sample, of searches conducted with the aid of DNA, see Marilyn Crawshaw, “Voluntary DNA-Based Information Exchange and Contact Services Following Donor Conception: An Analysis of Service Users’ Needs,” New Genetics and Society 35, no. 4 (October 2016): 372–92.
(10.) As sociologists, we know well that the normative obligations of kinship vary widely from social group to social group, as those groups are defined by class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and immigration status. We also know well that those expectations are not always fulfilled: people desert, abandon, and otherwise turn their back on family members all the time; people choose selectively among their relatives when issuing wedding invitations or answering a summons to a Thanksgiving celebration. Indeed, we cannot and do not make any claims for the way people “usually” act in families—whether we are talking about what is sometimes called the “nuclear” or immediate family or the “extended” family structure.
(11.) An interest in genes occurs periodically in US history. The beginning of the twentieth century was a time when many people believed that genes alone determined individual outcomes; the beginning of the twenty-first century appears to be another such time. On these issues see Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017).
(12.) 23andMe, “Our Health + Ancestry DNA Service—23andMe,” 2017, https://www.23andme.com; AncestryDNA.com, “AncestryDNA US | (p.246) DNA Tests for Ethnicity & Genealogy DNA Test,” 2017, https://www.ancestry.com/dna/.
(13.) D. O. Braithwaite et al., “Constructing Family: A Typology of Voluntary Kin,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 27, no. 3 (April 22, 2010): 388–407; Margaret K. Nelson, “Fictive Kin,” in Encyclopedia of Family Studies, ed. Constance L. Shehan (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2016), 1–3; Carol Stack, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); Jeffrey Weeks, Catherine Donovan, and Brian Heaphy, Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life-Experiments (London: Routledge, 2001); Kath Weston, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
(14.) Known donors sometimes become more involved in the family and may also be involved in childrearing. See Martha M. Ertman, Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).
(15.) See Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Those single mothers who are lesbian and later find a same-sex partner become similar to two-mother families. The difference is that the new partner did not participate in donor selection. These complexities are beyond the scope of this book.
(16.) When couples split up (or legally divorce), the original parents still remain, and even if there are stepparents, the original equation of biological and social parenthood is retained. In effect the “links” between the two original parents determine the children’s movement between households.
(17.) Now that problems of freezing and shipping sperm have been solved, people wanting to purchase sperm no longer need to go to a local bank but can order from anyplace where they find an attractive donor profile. FedEx or UPS will deliver. Indeed, in the United States, frozen sperm has become a major industry. See Deborah L. Spar, The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2006).
(18.) Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. discussed the distinction between “daddies” and “fathers” among the African American families he studied. See “Fathering in the Inner City: Paternal Participation and Public Policy,” in Fatherhood: Contemporary Theory, Research and Social Policy, ed. William Marsiglio (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995), 119–47. Carol Stack also observed the same distinction. See All Our Kin. Among these families (and also Native American families) caregiving, not biology, determines the child’s “daddy.”
(19.) See, for example, Linda M. Burton and Cecily R. Hardaway, “Low-Income Mothers as ‘Othermothers’ to Their Romantic Partners’ Children: Women’s Coparenting in Multiple Partner Fertility Relationships,” Family Process 51, no. 3 (2012): 343–59; Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises (p.247) I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
(20.) Andrew Cherlin, “Remarriage as an Incomplete Institution,” American Journal of Sociology 84, no. 3 (1978): 634–50.
(21.) Along with other changes, attitudes toward gamete use have changed dramatically in the past several decades. Something that was felt to be shameful and kept secret is now something that is openly discussed. Today disclosure about sperm donation to young children is almost universally the recommendation, at least for heterosexual couples and single mothers. For same-sex couples, of course, disclosure is more or less inevitable, whether it is a recommendation or not. This shift is also significant for our discussion because without disclosure there could be no contact across the separate families of donor siblings. And it is the interest in, and desire for, that contact that drives network formation. Within the world of adoption a similarly new interest in openness prevails. As a result, in that world as well, opportunities for contact now exist among people tied by genes alone. On this history, see Christine Jones, “Openness in Adoption: Challenging the Narrative of Historical Progress,” Child & Family Social Work 21, no. 1 (February 1, 2016): 85–93; Samuel L. Perry, “Adoption in the United States: A Critical Synthesis of Literature and Directions for Sociological Research.”
(22.) Of course, people do the same comparisons with other relatives (including siblings). The search for similarities and differences is not unique to donor siblings or people involved in adoption.
(23.) We note several further differences between the two practices. First is the simple fact that in the United States, eggs, sperm, and entire embryos are sold on an open market and a market decides a price for those products. The same is not the case for babies in the United States today. Second, children placed for adoption are not “body parts” but fully human people, whereas donor conception involves the transfer of individual gametes (or, at most, an embryo). Third, unlike birth parents, donors do not “place a child” for adoption; in fact donors do not know what (if anything) becomes of their donations. We note also that some embryos are not sold but given up for what is called “adoption.” But this is still a different practice from placing a living child with another family.
(24.) Indeed, these may be more important comparisons than those made to friends and peers, both because the comparisons with siblings are “deeply embedded in family politics” (Katherine Davies, “Siblings, Stories and the Self: The Sociological Significance of Young People’s Sibling Relationships,” Sociology 49, no. 4 : 679–95) and because they are perpetuated by others (including, for example, teachers). Moreover, siblings can be important because of sheer longevity: siblings are among one’s longest-lasting relationship, typically outlasting those of parents.
Sibling research is dominated by psychologists interested in theories of personality development. Among psychologists, Frank J. Sulloway looks at (p.248) how siblings raised together are remarkably different (Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives [New York: Pantheon Books, 1996]). Various family dynamic factors, not simply birth order, affect personality. Sociological research on siblinghood is scant. For exceptions see Rosalind Edwards, Melanie Mauthner, and Lucy Hadfield, “Children’s Sibling Relationships and Gendered Practices: Talk, Activity and Dealing with Change,” Gender and Education 17, no. 5 (2005): 499–513; Melanie Mauthner, “Distant Lives, Still Voices: Sistering in Family Sociology,” Sociology 39, no. 4 (2005): 623–42; Ian McIntosh and Samantha Punch, “‘Barter,’ ‘Deals,’ ‘Bribes’ and ‘Threats’: Exploring Sibling Interactions,” Childhood 16, no. 1 (February 2009): 49–65; Janet Carsten, “The Substance of Kinship and the Heat of the Hearth: Feeding, Personhood, and Relatedness among Malays in Pulau Langkawi,” American Ethnologist 22, no. 2 (1995): 223–41. For a review of sibling relationships in childhood and adolescence, see Susan M. McHale, Kimberly A. Updegraff, and Shawn D. Whiteman, “Sibling Relationships and Influences in Childhood and Adolescence,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74, no. 5 (2012): 913–30. Among sociological theorists in the symbolic interactionist tradition, the emphasis has been on the role of parents in intergeneration transmission of identity. See, for example, Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (1902; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983); George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), and later Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) and Anselm L. Strauss, Mirrors and Masks: The Search for Identity (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1997).
(25.) For examples see Antti O. Tanskanen, Liviana Zanchettin, Giorgio Gronchi, and Valentina Morsan, “Sibling Conflicts in Full- and Half-Sibling Households in the UK,” Journal of Biosocial Science 49, no. 1 (January 2017): 31–47, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021932016000043; Kirby Deater-Deckard and Judy Dunn, “Sibling Relationships and Social-Emotional Adjustment in Different Family Contexts,” Social Development 11, no. 4 (2002): 571–90; Susan J. T. Branje et al., “Perceived Support in Sibling Relationships and Adolescent Adjustment: Sibling Support and Adjustment,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 45, no. 8 (November 2004): 1385–96, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00332.x; Anne C. Bernstein, “Stepfamilies from Siblings’ Perspectives,” Marriage & Family Review 26, nos. 1–2 (1997): 153–75; Armeda Stevenson Wojciak, “‘It’s Complicated’: Exploring the Meaning of Sibling Relationships of Youth in Foster Care,” Child and Family Social Work 22 (2017): 1283–91.
(26.) Jens Manuel Krogstad, “5 Facts about the Modern American Family,” Pew Research Center (blog), April 30, 2014, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/30/5-facts-about-the-modern-american-family/; “Average (p.249) Size of Households in the U.S. 1960-2017 | Statistic,” Statista, accessed April 25, 2018, https://www.statista.com/statistics/183648/average-size-of-households-in-the-us/.
(27.) National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “ART 2010 National Summary Report,” 2012. Isabel Sawhill predicts that single mothers by choice, who are older women and carefully plan their families, will continue to grow as both marriage and divorce are declining. See the discussion in Claire Cain Miller, “Egg Freezing as a Work Benefit? Some Women See Darker Message,” New York Times, October 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/upshot/egg-freezing-as-a-work-benefit-some-women-see-darker-message.html.
(28.) Scholarly research finds that the more privileged are less likely to live near family. See, for example, Lillian Rubin, Worlds of Pain (New York: Basic Books, 1976). However, Claude Fisher finds that in the 2000s, Americans were less likely to move than in previous generations (Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010]). Those who do move away from their hometowns are likely to be those with higher incomes and those from rural areas. Our respondents usually settle down in a specific region of the country when their children are in middle school. Returning home (or never leaving the state where one of the parents had grown up) is common. Our point here is that regardless of family form, mobility also contributes to the sense of less family than in earlier generations.
(29.) This concept of a “thinned” family comes from Ross Douthat, “The Post-familial Election,” New York Times, November 5, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/06/opinion/sunday/the-post-familial-election.html.
(30.) We called the Centers for Disease Control, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and the American Association of Tissue Banks. All reported that there is no centralized agency: no agency is responsible either for keeping track of the number of sperm banks in the United States or for any related information about what becomes of purchased vials of sperm. There are also no uniform regulations for accepting donors, limits on the number of offspring per donor, or the kinds of information that banks offer about sperm donors.
(31.) Laura Mamo, “Queering the Fertility Clinic,” Journal of Medical Humanity 34 (2013): 227–39; Maureen Sullivan, The Family of Woman: Lesbian Mothers, Their Children, and the Undoing of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Brian Powell, Catherine Blozendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman, Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2010).
(32.) In order to limit the layers of complexity of our project we do not include gay or trans parents. We also did not include families who are coparenting (such as a gay couple and a lesbian couple who have a child together). For accounts of gay fathers and other modern families, see Judith Stacy, (p.250) “Cruising to Familyland: Gay Hypergamy and Rainbow Kinship,” Current Sociology 52, no. 2 (March 1, 2004): 181–97; “The Families of Man: Gay Male Intimacy and Kinship in a Global Metropolis,” Signs 30 (2005): 1911–35; “Gay Parenthood and the Decline of Paternity as We Knew It,” Sexualities 9 (2006): 27–55; Unhitched Love: Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China (New York: New York University Press, 2011); and Joshua Gamson, Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (New York: New York University Press, 2015). We also deliberately did not include families created through surrogacy. For a comparison of the surrogacy politics and policies that differ between New York and California, see Susan Markens, Surrogate Motherhood and the Politics of Reproduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). For a discussion of married women who become domestic surrogates, see Heather Jacobson, Labor of Love: Gestational Surrogacy and the Work of Making Babies (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016). For a global perspective on surrogacy, see Amrita Pande, Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
(33.) Although our group of respondents included a small number of families who used egg donors and an equally small number of families who used known sperm donors, we do not feature these families in this book. Egg donor families sometimes have the opportunities to meet donor siblings; this is rare right now. And while both known egg donors and known sperm donors might have their own children who are half-siblings to those conceived with their donated gametes, these sets of children are not socially the same as sperm or egg bank donor siblings. The families we interviewed who relied on egg donors are important to us as background information. We only mention them explicitly when the child has been conceived with both an egg and a sperm donor.
(34.) Spar, Baby Business.
(36.) See Amy Agigian, Baby Steps: How Lesbian Alternative Insemination Is Changing the World (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004). Her research was conducted through a Boston clinic.
(37.) The Single Mothers by Choice organization was founded in 1981. It has local chapters throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. The organization has an online presence, including various private forums through its website.
(38.) This strategy also gave us a geographically diverse sample within the networks. In each network the readers will discover, as we did, the cultural diversity that characterizes the set of random families who happened to purchase the same donor sperm.
(39.) Because we made contact with children through their families, we had a more even distribution of boys and girls than is generally found in research (p.251) on donor-conceived children. For example, in an earlier survey of donor-conceived children, only a fifth of the respondents were boys. See Rosanna Hertz, Margaret K. Nelson, and Wendy Kramer, “Donor Conceived Offspring Conceive of the Donor: The Relevance of Age, Awareness, and Family Form,” Social Science & Medicine 86 (June 2013): 52–65.