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Hollywood Tells Us, “The Kids Are All Right.” (Reality Suggests Otherwise.)

posted at 9:20 am on July 10, 2010 by

If art imitates life, the movie The Kids are All Right would have us believe exactly that— a familial role can be filled by anyone who assumes it and children conceived by sperm donation are in as much danger of being maladjusted as any average American teen.

Glowing reviews in both the New York Times and Slate hail the film as a refreshingly honest, intelligently humorous view into a non-traditional “family.”  While the movie explores some of the children’s attendant emotions involving the search and discovery of their donor father, the larger scope of the film is about marriage itself.  Well, same-sex marriage.

The movie presupposes societal acceptance and legal right of same-sex couples to marry.  Dana Stevens of Slate can’t help but get caught up in the progressive fervor:

More than anything, The Kids Are All Right is a film about marriage. Not about gay marriage in particular, though the portrait of this couple’s decades-long bond underscores the absurdity of the debate about what to call same-sex unions.

According to Slate, director Lisa Cholodenko is well-acquainted with the topic:

Cholodenko, who has a donor child with her partner, isn’t making a rah-rah commercial for alternative families—in fact, some gay viewers may bristle at the movie’s less-than-orthodox take on lesbian sexuality and the complications of donor parenthood. What Cholodenko has aimed for, and achieved, is something bigger: a serious and funny film about the simple yet incomprehensibly fraught act of moving through time with the person you love.

Yet, the context itself—the children’s origins—drives the interpersonal drama in the first place, providing a framework for the whole film.  Regarding this as a mere subplot seems naive at best, if not a deliberate attempt to normalize the film’s unconventional relationships.

I’ve not seen the film but if it’s anything like the reviews or trailer suggest, I might enjoy it.  I imagine it will be both heartwarming and “challenging,” as many movies are.  But does that make it either right or true?

Interestingly, Slate published a study on donor children (also referencing the movie) last month.  I wrote a piece for Newsreal contrasting this and another study which I’m reposting here for your consideration.  Given recent court decisions and the accelerated speed new technologies progress, it’s an important discussion to have.


Gay Parents and Sperm Donors: Storks and Science Revisited

June 15, 2010

Last week, TIME reported on a study of children conceived by artificial insemination raised by lesbian parents.  It was billed as the first longitudinal study of its kind, charting the development of 78 children from conception to the age of 17.  The “conclusions” were surprising.  According to TIME:

[…] they were surprised to discover that children in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioral problems, such as rule-breaking and aggression.

Some have called this a victory for same-sex parents against nay-saying traditionalists.  But are these conclusions the vindication they consider them to be?  Can a parental questionnaire and data collected at ages 10 and 17 from only 78 children constitute an accurate longitudinal test? Is the sample large enough and perimeter wide enough to conclude strong correlation considering the unpredictability of human behavior?  What about the issue of artificial insemination and biological heritage?

Slate magazine recently published a parallel study of children conceived via sperm donation which raised numerous questions about the procedure itself and the long term implications for offspring. Researchers Karen Clark and Elizabeth Marquardt reported:

Our study, released by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future last week, focused on how young-adult donor offspring—and comparison samples of young adults who were raised by adoptive or biological parents—make sense of their identities and family experiences, how they approach reproductive technologies more generally, and how they are faring on key outcomes. The study of 18- to 45-year-olds includes 485 who were conceived via sperm donation, 562 adopted as infants, and 563 raised by their biological parents.

The findings were both enlightening and heartbreaking.  Contrasted with peers of biological parents, donor offspring ranging in age from 18-45 are:

…twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.

Donor offspring are also reported to suffer more than children of adoptive parents:

As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families. (And our study found that the adoptees on average are struggling more than those raised by their biological parents.) The donor offspring are more likely than the adopted to have struggled with addiction and delinquency and, similar to the adopted, a significant number have confronted depression or other mental illness.

Nearly all donor offspring in the study reported myriad emotional and psychological issues such as:

  • Scanning crowds for their father
  • Resentment over the financial transaction made to create them
  • Feeling like a “lab experiment” or “freak of nature,” and
  • Strained relationships with their parents.

Clark and Marquardt make it very clear that knowing one’s biological roots is of incalculable importance to an individual.  Furthermore, their research (albeit indirectly), yet again reinforces the notion that the nuclear family structure is the optimal environment for childhood development, defying the conclusions drawn from the first study highlighted in TIME. They suggest tighter regulation on sperm donation, at least comparable to the rigorous process parents undergo to adopt a child, and ending private sperm donation all together to help donor offspring in the future.

Contrasting the two studies underscores the inherent bias in so much of what passes for “research” in our culture.  This is, of course, nothing new in academic circles (see Kinsey, ’48 and ’53), but when there is such a clear connection between substandard methodology and “fashionable” but anti-establishment findings, as in the TIME study, one wonders whether the cart is deliberately being placed before the horse.   When “science” informs what is normative, and what is normal is perceived as good, our cultural mores shift.  What should our response be to these profound ethical questions when even “objective” science is agenda-driven, at best?  Furthermore, what is the distinctly conservative answer to the progressive re-engineering of the family structure while still protecting essential freedoms?  According to the Slate study, the well-being of future Americans depends on our answer.

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As an ex-foster parent and the mother of two adoptees one of whom remembers her father vaguely and the younger who doesn’t, I think that, if fatherless, most indulge in fantasies or wish lists about the dad they never knew. This happens to even the happiest and most well adjusted of them. Those who knew but no longer see their bio. dads never seem to succeed in quite breaking that bond or wishing things could have been different. The most determined go looking if possible. Don’t know the stats, just going by my own experience and theirs. As for ‘donor’ children, I suspect the same applies?

jeanie on July 10, 2010 at 11:23 AM

Anyone who says a dad is not important to the long-term success and viability of a child is chemically imbalanced in the worst way.

Or trying to push some agenda.

uknowmorethanme on July 10, 2010 at 3:08 PM

Don’t know the stats, just going by my own experience and theirs. As for ‘donor’ children, I suspect the same applies?

jeanie on July 10, 2010 at 11:23 AM

The Slate study contrasted adopted children with donor children. Although some traits are similar, most donor offspring express distinct concerns specific to artifical insemination, as I listed:
resentment over the financial transaction made to create them, feeling like a “lab experiment” or “freak of nature.”

I truly appreciate your comment, by the way. Thank you.

uknowmorethanme on July 10, 2010 at 3:08 PM

Nothing like a daddy. 🙂

Bee on July 10, 2010 at 4:56 PM

Diane, the suggestion that the government should regulate American families is as horrifying coming from social conservatives as it is coming from liberals. Such an intrusion into the personal should be met with fiercest resistance. If you think that “donor offspring” are disadvantaged and experience strained family relationships, I suggest you not have any. But it’s not your business how or why individuals — straight, gay, single, or married who cannot reproduce without medical help — choose to have families.

Both of the studies you discuss are typical of the genre. Either side will dig up study after study ignoring the central issue: why should anybody support more extreme government intrusion into family life?

Moreover — come to think of it — if such children are indeed already fighting an uphill battle, I doubt they’ll thank you for placing more obstacles in their way, including burdening their parents with “tighter regulation” by the government.

Gabriel Malor on July 10, 2010 at 11:38 PM

Gabriel Malor on July 10, 2010 at 11:38 PM

I can see how my language implies agreement with their (Clark and Marquardt) suggestions, though many of my questions were merely rhetorical. Still, valid questions and an important topic to discuss.

Admittedly, my libertarian-leanings hit a bit of a road block at reproductive technologies. My question has always been: at what point do ethical considerations trump the speed which these technologies progress? As in, why stop here? What about cloning/eugenics? No one can deny we’re in unprecedented (technological) times.

It’s also a philosophical argument, at its core. What makes us human? (re:cloning) What constitutes the family? Is it any amorphous grouping? Where did that idea originate? What’s the historical precedent and does it even matter?

If you think that “donor offspring” are disadvantaged and experience strained family relationships, I suggest you not have any.

Given that my son was conceived non-consensually, that isn’t too far from reality.

I do cede your point about government involvement, however. A necessary evil, indeed…its ever-expanding reach is frightening. For the record, I grew up in a strict so-con home (though my life and choices have defied that). I’m still working out that whole libertine/libertarian/conservative tension, myself. 🙂

Bee on July 11, 2010 at 5:40 AM