Creative Destruction

August 11, 2006

Children Don’t Always Need Their Biological Fathers

Filed under: Feminist Issues — Ampersand @ 12:13 pm

From a news story about “single women choosing to become single moms”:

Elkins, like many women her age, felt the pressures of wanting a child but realized that in the modern age she didn’t need a relationship with a man to make her dream possible. So she turned to an anonymous sperm donor to make her a mom.

[…] Places like California Cryobank, one of the largest sperm banks in the country, reports that single women make up 32 percent of the clients who buy sperm from its bank.

Fertility centers like those at New York University were originally set up for infertile couples. Now doctors consult with a growing number of single women looking to tackle motherhood alone.

“We’re definitely seeing more single women,” said Dr. Shelley Lee, a clinical psychologist and director of psychological services at NYU. “And particularly women who are professional women[…]”

Elizabeth at Family Scholars responds:

A 46 year old woman: Since I was 20 or 30, I would see a baby and my heart would melt, and there needed to be a child in my life…

A child: Since I was 3 or 4, I would see a father and my heart would melt, and there needed to be a father — my father — in my life…

Elizabeth often seems to assume that the typical child raised without her or his biological father pines for contact with that father – not in a “mild curiosity” fashion, but in a “truly suffering due to existential angst” fashion. But I’m not at all sure that’s true.

The academic journal Human Reproduction published a study of adolescents who were conceived through donor insemination (DI; also know as sperm donation). (Scheib, Riordan and Rubin, “Adolescents with open-identity sperm donors,” Human Reproduction 2005 20(1), pages 239-252). All of the adolescents grew up knowing that they had been conceived via DI. 41% were raised in households headed by lesbian couples, 38% raised by single women, and 21% in households headed by heterosexual couples.

Put another way, 79% were raised in completely fatherless households, and 100% in households without their natural fathers. Yet although 80% said they were “moderately likely” to ever want contact with their biological fathers at all, only 7% reported wanting a father/child relationship.

(It’s important to note that all of these families were open with their DI children about their origins from a young age. Many scholars believe that families that keep their children’s DI origins a secret actually make things harder on the children in the long run, because of the shock and feelings of being deceived when someone discovers their DI origins later in life.)

Admittedly, this study has a very small sample size, and the 60% response rate isn’t ideal. But even if the Human Reproduction study isn’t perfect, at least it’s some evidence. Nor is it the only such study; for instance, a 1998 study of DI children in Child Development found that “reports from both the parents and teachers on standardized measures of adjustment indicated that the children were well-adjusted and no differences emerged across households headed by single women, lesbian couples and heterosexual couples.” (Chan RW, Raboy B and Patterson CJ (1998) Psychosocial adjustment among children conceived via donor insemination by lesbian and heterosexual mothers. Child Dev. 69, 443–457. Summary quoted from Scheib (2005).).

(Other studies showing that DI children are well-adjusted include: Brewaeys A (2001) Review: Parent-child relationships and child development in donor insemination families. Human Reproduction Update 7, 38–46; Golombok S, MacCallum F, Goodman E and Rutter M (2002a) Families with children conceived by donor insemination: A follow-up at age 12. Child Dev 73, 952–968; Vanfraussen K, Ponjaert-Kristoffersen I and Brewaeys A (2003) Family functioning in lesbian families created by donor insemination. Am J Orthopsychiatry 73, 78–90.)

In contrast, I haven’t seen any evidence at all indicating that a majority, or even a large minority, of DI children feel a strong need for a father/child relationship with their biological fathers. In fact, I haven’t seen a single study finding that DI children in open-donor families are less well-adjusted in any empirically measurable way. Elizabeth’s position seems based on ideology and anecdotes, not on evidence.

* * *

In the comments of Elizabeth’s post, Adele wrote:

The logic almost seems to go something like this, “…there will not be a suitable man to be a father but I’m not going to let that stop me! I’ll be both mother and father to my child!” The empirical evidence says that it does not usually work out in the best interest of the child.

The empirical evidence isn’t as clear-cut as Adele believes. A quick look turned up this study, which examined “a distinct subgroup of single parents, who, out of a strong desire for a child, have made the active choice to go it alone.” The study found that “this route to parenthood does not necessarily seem to have an adverse effect on mothers’ parenting ability or the psychological adjustment of the child.”

And this study, which found “The presence or absence of a father in the home from the outset does appear to have some influence on adolescents’ relationships with their mothers. However, being without a resident father from infancy does not seem to have negative consequences for children.”

Of course, some studies have found that children raised in fatherless households are more likely to be troubled than children raised from infancy in intact, married households with a mother and a father. But these studies often include children who went through divorce or other forms of family instability, who face economic insecurity, who have had to integrate stepparents into their households, who grow up in lousy neighborhoods with inferior schools, and whose mothers were extremely young and lacking in resources.

It’s not warranted to conclude that because lack of a father is apparently harmful in combination with other factors, that it must be harmful in and of itself. And studies of DI children seem to show that when these other factors are absent, the negative outcomes of fatherlessness are absent, too.

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