The Child Commodified

Over the past few years I have read nearly every strip in Bill Watterson’s inimitable Calvin and Hobbes, but few remain in my memory.  One that I will never forget, however, begins with Calvin ambushing his unsuspecting father with The Question: “Dad, how do people make babies?”  Recovering quickly, his father responds, “Most people just go to Sears, buy the kit, and follow the assembly instructions.”  Calvin is shocked.  “I came from Sears?” he cries.  Mr. Calvin retorts, “No, you were a blue light special at K-Mart.  Almost as good, and a lot cheaper.”  And Calvin dissolves into horrified cries as his mother intervenes to undo her husband’s damage.

Calvin’s shock seems to stem from his disbelief that something which he values and respects so highly as himself could be sold down the aisle from the power drills at the local hardware store, and thus is entirely understandable.  For the modern reader, however, his dad’s big revelation is probably less shocking, if still humorous in its portrayal.  This is because, while children themselves aren’t for sale, fertility is a business operating in over 400 clinics countrywide.  Sperm and egg donation in particular are on the rise, with 17,000 IVF cycles performed with donated eggs in 2011, and even more with donated sperm, although there is no reliable estimate of how many sperm cycles are performed yearly.

These practices are popular because they allow infertile couples and individuals in nontraditional family structures, or even no family structures at all, to create children and bring them to term, giving parents who would otherwise not have had the opportunity the chance to be involved with their children’s lives from the moment of conception.  But while the donation of sex cells seen in this light seems to be a positive practice, it in fact changes the relationship between parents and children to the detriment of the latter.  This occurs for two reasons. First, it removes children to varying degrees from the close and stable network formed by a child’s nuclear family and close relations.  Second, it teaches parents that children exist for them and not the other way around. Through various reproductive practices, parents decide to craft their children to conform to their desires in terms of their physical and intellectual talents and attributes, instead of recognizing that they exist for the sake of loving, caring for, and nourishing their children.

Traditionally, when a child is born, it is born to a mother and a father, and it is born as a consequence of an act that is essentially unitive.  The child is the consequence of the binding of the two individuals into one, and its presence requires of each a renewed commitment to the other in the face of all the new challenges raising it will present.  A child is born into the community that created it, and it immediately benefits from all the stability that this community affords.  The child belongs to its mother and father, all the way down to its genetic makeup, and they belong to it—fathering or mothering a child requires raising it from birth through adulthood.  When either partner begins to fail in his or her duties to child or spouse, the kin on both sides of the family are present to encourage, reprimand, or fill in for him or her as necessary.  If even this fails, family law has traditionally mandated that a child’s biological mother and father care for it—an absent or abusive father, for example, cannot simply abandon his offspring but must continue to pay child support even after he has been relieved of his more immediate duties.

Now a child from donated sex cells can of course be born into a community that at least resembles that of the traditional nuclear family and close relations, but there is evidence to suggest that even those born into these more stable families are less likely to rely on and have faith in them.  A recent study by the Center for American Values reports that while sixty-five percent of the nearly 500 sperm donor-conceived children surveyed considered their genetic father half of who they are, fifty-three percent agreed: “I have worried that if I try to get more information about or seek a relationship with my sperm donor, my mother and/or the father who raised me would feel angry or hurt.”  This is a problem because it reveals that these children do not feel at home within their own homes, that they are insecure in their identities and hindered in some way from forming deep, formative relationships with both the parents they live with and the parents who brought them into existence.  As a result, they come to rely less on both sets of individuals and look to outside parties fill gaps in their emotional, mental, and character development. In fact, fifty-seven percent of the donor offspring agreed: “I feel I can depend on my friends more than on my family” — twice as many as those growing up with their biological parents.

It is difficult to say exactly why children seem to suffer more insecurity when their social parents are not the same as their biological ones, but I will offer one possible explanation.  The traditional act of conception is one of complete unity and commitment between spouses, both to each other and to whatever their union creates.  A child conceived from donated egg and sperm can of course also be born to committed and united parents, but its very existence and identity is not born of that unity, as the traditionally conceived child’s is.  Donor children feel that loss of stability and reliability—they feel that different parents, biological or social, are responsible for different aspects of their now-splintered identity, and their relatively more strained relationship with both kinds of parents reflects this loss and insecurity.

The second way in which gamete donation changes the relationship between parents and children arises from the heavy commercialization of the donor industry.  The term egg or sperm “donor” in these contexts is often a misnomer, as donors are generally well paid for their services.  Sperm donors typically sign contracts with sperm banks to donate once or twice a week for periods of up to two years for a fee of $50–$100 per donation.  The process of egg donation is far more complicated, as it involves hormonally stimulating women to mature 10 to 20 eggs for extraction in one cycle—far more than the one or two eggs that are typical—and thus egg donors tend to be compensated more.  Typically, they are reimbursed around $10,000 per cycle, although compensation can range as high as $100,000, depending on the donor’s height, intelligence, athletic ability, and other factors.

This commercialization of the fertility industry threatens the parent-child relationship by encouraging parents to view children as commodities to be modified according to parents’ tastes rather than as profound gifts bestowed upon parents for their care and nourishment.  When people go to a sperm bank to select a donor or advertise for an egg donor’s gametes, they are presented with a dizzying list of potential attributes they may bestow on their child, from sex to height to hair and eye color, to musical or athletic ability.  Naturally parents pay more for the gametes of an individual with more desirable attributes, which explains why some women are paid $10,000 for their eggs, while others are paid $50,000.  I do not claim that choosing certain attributes for one’s child is essentially harmful, but there is a very thin line between parents wishing to give their children the best they can possibly give them and demanding that children fulfill an idealized image or conception they have of them.  The process of choosing donors blurs this line.  It teaches parents that children exist to fulfill their whims and fantasies, and not that parents exist to fulfill children’s needs and desires.

Gamete donation is an immensely complicated topic when viewed from any angle, legal to sociological, and this article does not claim to be authoritative even within the narrow scope on which it focuses.  This being said, it seems necessary to consider the kinds of effects the practice has on those children it creates, and on these children’s relationships with their social parents.  Both by its very nature and by the way in which it is traditionally practiced, conceiving children through gamete donation changes the dynamic of parent-child relationships.  It complicates the child’s connections with its network of immediate family and close relations.  And it commodifies the child it produces, allowing parents to dictate its various physical and mental attributes, and thus encouraging them to see it not as a gift which they are responsible for raising and cherishing however it arrives, but as a product whose every detail they are entitled to control and command.

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