At 7 years old, Katrina Clark was a precocious little girl. When adults asked her questions like, "What does your daddy do?" Katrina had a ready answer: "I don't have a daddy," she would chirp cheerfully. "My mother was artificially inseminated."
For a time, Katrina enjoyed her novel lineage. She liked the way adults admired her grasp of donor-conception biology, which she explained to them as frankly as if she were explaining Barbie dolls.
"I knew all about the birds and the bees and the concept of someone donating genetic raw material," said Katrina Clark, now 18 and a freshman at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. "I could understand it technically, but not socially and psychologically."
As Clark headed into adolescence, however, all that changed. Her mother had told her that the man who had donated the sperm to make her was probably a college student. "When I got to be about 12, I realized that meant he was still alive, that I could pass him on the street one day and never know it. . . . Then I started observing my friends and their situations with their fathers. And it hit me that there might be something wrong with this situation."
Clark is among the first in her generation old enough to begin speaking out about growing up in the brave new world of alternative family models. Driven by the increasing use of reproductive technologies, the debate over same-sex parenting, and the acceptance of single and even "group" parenting, a growing panoply of new "family constellations"-as one psychologist has termed them-is raising questions: Where does society draw the line between adults' perceived right to parent and what is best for children? What role should the state have in defining parenthood? And with little data to measure outcomes, is the world steaming away too rapidly from the two-parent, mother-father model?
"Our societies will either answer these questions democratically and as a result of . . . serious reflection and public debate, or we will find, very soon, that these questions have already been answered for us," writes Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values (IAV) in New York. In her 2006 report, "The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children's Needs," Marquardt cites evidence that governments worldwide are quietly pushing aside old-as-time familial identities such as "mother" and "father" in favor of legal terms elastic enough to accommodate everyone:
- In Spain, where same-sex marriage was recently made legal, the legislature voted to replace the terms "mother" and "father" with "Progenitor A" and "Progenitor B."
- In the United States, judges in donor-conception and surrogacy cases now must navigate the labyrinthine complexities of the planning, financing, conception, carrying, bearing, rearing, and genetics of a child, to determine which adults hold parental rights. (Commissions in Australia and New Zealand have proposed unraveling similar problems by allowing donor-conceived children to have three legal parents.)
- In same-sex parenting and divorce cases, U.S. judges have declared non-relatives "psychological parents," even when a fit biological parent wanted the child.
- In Vietnam, a state-supported hospital is considering setting up a community sperm bank due to demand from single women who want a baby but wish to remain unmarried.
On that front, Katrina Clark's mother was in the vanguard. "She was one of the pioneering women who went into [artificial insemination] as a single parent," Clark said. Throughout early childhood, Clark developed coping mechanisms to deal with the utter absence of a father figure in her life. She would tell herself that her father was dead or that the college student whom her mother had chosen from among other potential donors was probably too young to take good care of her, anyway. "It didn't occur to me that he was aging along with me," Clark said.
But when Clark hit middle school, parents of one friend divorced while another friend reunited with her long-lost dad. Katrina found herself yearning for the chance to experience not only life's greatest joys, but also its deepest sorrows. In the divorce case, "I was almost jealous. I knew I could never feel that pain," she said. "And not only would I never feel that pain, I would never have the chance to reunite."
Such emotional wounds are just one negative outcome chronicled in studies of children who grew up in single-parent and fatherless homes. Writing in The Weekly Standard, W. Bradford Wilcox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a resident fellow at the IAV, ticks off a partial list of U.S. and international studies that link fatherlessness to higher rates of suicide, teen pregnancy, and criminal behavior:
- A Princeton University/University of California at San Francisco study of 6,000 boys found that boys raised in single-parent homes were twice as likely to wind up in prison.
In a study of over 750 girls in the United States and New Zealand, University of Arizona psychologist Bruce Ellis found that those who saw their father leave the family before age 6 were more than six times as likely to become pregnant as teenagers than those whose fathers stayed in the home throughout their childhoods.
- A 1991-1998 study of Swedish children found that those in single-parent homes were twice as likely to attempt suicide and 50 percent more likely to succeed in committing suicide than those in two-parent families.
Meanwhile, according to a 2005 University of Chicago literature review, students living with married parents score higher on reading comprehension, compared to students living in stepfamilies, with single mothers, and in other types of families. Living in a single-parent family is linked with decreases in children's math scores.
But, as with many social hot potatoes, each wing of the debate about families can produce research studies bolstering an alternative view. For example, Joann Paley Galst, a clinical psychologist specializing in reproductive health issues, recently completed her own review of more than 100 studies of families built through gamete donation, surrogacy, and lesbian parenting. She concluded: "I don't think we have evidence that the families that have been created [using reproductive technologies] are doing such a disservice to the children."
Likewise, Florida child psychologist Vicki Panaccione, founder of the Better Parenting Institute, had only praise for lesbian-parented families: "We're talking about stable, committed families that have been together, raising children with traditional values such as respect for elders, responsibility, and education."
In her private practice, Galst works with lesbian and opposite-sex couples seeking counseling while going through "fertility work-ups" with couples from pre-conception until preadolescence. "From my clinical experience, these children are very much wanted and loved. They are definitely seen as a gift."
Katrina Clark, who networks with other donor-conceived people, agrees. "But that's not the issue," she said. "The issue is adults making life-altering decisions for their children that are in the adults' best interests as opposed to what's in the best interests of the child." And while various child-welfare experts define "best interests of the child" variously, Clark argues that the real experts, the children themselves, are not being heard. (Even Galst concedes that she works with the parents in donor and surrogacy cases, but has not worked with the resulting children.)
"Part of the problem now is this is still a new situation," Clark said. "My generation is the first to be studied and no one has really looked at us. I'd rather not have been a guinea pig, but I was. Still, a lot of people in the medical, scientific, and legislative communities are not listening to us. I don't know why. Maybe they can't relate to our pain."
Dawn Stefanowicz echoes Clark's complaint. A Canadian author and speaker whose father was gay, Stefanowicz, 43, grew up with a parade of his male partners marching through her home. Some stayed for years, some only for hours. "My father could cruise during broad daylight and get someone to have sex during the lunch hour," Stefanowicz said. "By the time I was 10 years old, I had been exposed to a sex shop, a gay nude beach, and a bathhouse."
Stefanowicz said she did not see women valued in her household and grew up finding it difficult to receive love or appreciate her own womanhood. She also lacked the sense of filial grounding common to traditional two-parent families, such as the enduring presence of extended family. In her 20s, Stefanowicz buried her pain and tried to move on with her life. Now married with kids of her own, Stefanowicz has come to terms with the past and chronicled her experiences in an autobiography, Out from Under: Getting Clear of the Wreckage of a Sexually Disordered Home, due out next year.
"The reality is that the children are not being heard," Stefanowicz said. "You're a dependent; you can't speak up. You can't say, 'I'm 6 years old and this is the third partner my daddy has had.' The children are completely silenced and have to pretend it's fine and OK."
It is not an equal opportunity silencing, however. Public schools nationwide have embraced "What Makes a Family," a photographic exhibit and film that includes same-sex-parented families as part of one great big mosaic of "normal." Meanwhile, the mainstream press now rarely questions the social and clinical wisdom of same-sex parenting, preferring to explore its internal challenges instead. For example, the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 29 ran a positive front-page feature on Chad and David, a pair of white-collar homosexuals struggling to become co-fathers through surrogacy.
Stefanowicz, on the other hand, has already received physical threats and profane e-mails for going public with her very un-PC account of growing up in a gay-parented household. "That is why so few of us will ever go public. It is not a big, safe, supportive, and 'happy' family that surrounds us as children-something the media portrays."
Still, the negative views of some adult children are bubbling to the surface. Some born into same-sex parenting situations call themselves "queer spawn," according to Elizabeth Marquardt's research, while some donor-conceived young people refer to themselves as "lopsided" or "half-adopted."
"We all feel some loss of kinship, a lot of the same things that adopted people feel," Clark said. But while adopted people usually come from difficult circumstances then find healing once taken into a loving home, donor conception is encouraged as a brave new way for people to form families who would not have formed families before-purposefully creating in the process a crop of biologically rootless kids.
Donor conception "robs the birthright of a person to know who their parents are," Clark said. "Ethically, I see something wrong with that."
Driven by her desire to know her blood origins, Clark in 2004 contacted the "cryo-bank" that provided the sperm that helped make her. But personnel there threw administrative spike strips in her path. After trying a couple of other avenues, Clark found a "donor and offspring" registry on the internet, where the donor-conceived children could connect with donors willing to reveal their identities. Scrolling down to the date the college student had probably donated his sperm, Clark found a likely candidate and e-mailed him. Within two days, the man e-mailed her back with three pictures of himself attached.
It only took one. "When I saw the first picture, I just started to bawl," she said, noting the family resemblance. "I knew that he was my father."
That was February 2006. In March, after a DNA-matching test came back 99.9902 percent positive, the man revealed his name, as well as a basic medical history of his family, something most donor-conceived children lack.
Clark and her biological father began to talk on the phone about once a week, then even more often, and she began to hope for some kind of relationship. But this fall, the contact waned. "He's not comfortable with the situation," Clark said in a tone so mature it's easy to forget she's still a teenager. "I don't know how to make him more comfortable. He hasn't told his parents and siblings about me. . . . He said he would when he felt comfortable with it. I don't know when that will happen. It could be the day he dies. I'm trying to understand his perspective, but it's very difficult to do that. I'm not a donor."