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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Dear Ellen Goodman

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Dear Ellen Goodman
By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

This month’s column is a response to Ellen Goodman column, Figure in the Father Factor. In her column she is critical of the national spotlight on Mary Cheney and Heather Poe’s pregnancy and raises questions about the role of sperm donors in the family-building process. Goodman notes that about 30,000 babies a year are born from sperm donors, children that are born to heterosexual couples, lesbian couples, and single women of all orientations. Goodman is concerned that children have a right to know their biological parents; she says, “One person’s DNA is another person’s “dad.” She raises provocative questions about anonymity and a child’s right to find their sperm donors being similar to issues of adopted children finding their biological parents. However, she seems to identify an important issue about sperm donors’ motivation and role in the baby-making business, while at the same time confused it with another equally important issue: the naming of biological parents as Mommies and Daddies. Here is my response.

Dear Ellen:

I appreciate your bringing attention to the issue of donor insemination and raising questions about what influences men to donate sperm – anything that reFocuses the Family’s attention away from same-sex parenting is a good thing in my opinion. However, you seem to have missed an important issue in this discussion of the changing face of the American family, which is that biological parents are not Mommies and Daddies – Mommies and Daddies are people who actively parent their children.

I am an adoptive mother, and I have worked hard to maintain open communication with my children’s birth parents and I actively support open adoption records as I would support more open donor records. This is not because I believe children have a right to know their “Daddies,” but rather because human beings have a right to information about their biological inheritance, particularly as it relates to their medical history.

As you mentioned, many people will never know their biological history, for complex reasons including one-night stands and the fact that some heterosexual women sleep with men other than their husbands named on the child’s birth certificate, and that is a simple fact of life. It is also a fact of life that many (though not necessarily most) children (biological and adopted) have two parents who rear them, one of each sex; and some children (biological and adopted) have two parents of the same sex who rear them, and some children (biological and adopted) even have parents who change their sex. Children are being reared by single parents — by choice or happenstance, and by multiple parents –- as a result of repeated divorces and remarriages. But no matter how many parents children have and their particular sex and gender configuration, a parent is somebody who rears a child, not someone who biologically creates a child. A Mommy or a Daddy is someone who nurtures a child, someone who financially supports a child, someone who emotionally cares for a child, not someone who births a child they are unable to rear, or deposits sperm in a sperm bank for financial gain or social altruism. The words Mommy and Daddy identify a social role, a relational role, not a genetic marker of biological inheritance.

Your title, Figure in the Father Factor, plays into right-wing propaganda that every child needs a father. I know that you know better than this, Ellen. Every child needs a loving home, and enough food, a good education and access to health care, not parents in the right number and gender categories. If your goal is to challenge men who are sperm donors to have “second thoughts,” then the question is not for the Cheney-Poe child to be asked “Who’s your daddy?,” but rather for sperm donors to be asked “where” are their offspring. I think that is a perilous road, impacting many families, including many two-parent, opposite-sex homes, where infertile couples used donor sperm to make their family. It is one thing to have open records so that children can find out more about their donors when they become of age; it is another thing entirely to encourage donors to be more “committed” to their donations. The difference between being a donor and a father is that donors don’t have to have second or third thoughts; they get to walk away and let the parents raise their biological offspring.

Biological heritage is important — for some children it appears to be very important – but a donor is not a Daddy. Having a Daddy can be a lovely thing; having two Daddies can be twice as great. The Cheney-Poe baby will not have any Daddies, but rather two loving Mommies, and a biological sperm donor. That is one of the ways that families are made these days, apparently even Republican families.


Arlene Istar Lev. Albany New York