In today's debates about the family a new phrase can often be heard: 'intentional parenthood'. The term appears to have originated in the 1990s to resolve disputed surrogacy or lesbian parenting family law cases. It has since been embraced broadly within family law, in public discussion about reproduction, and by advocates of family diversity. Intentional parenthood, proponents say, is good for children. Intention makes a wanted child. Anyone can be an intentional parent — straight, gay, married, partnered, or single (1).
The idea's roots go deeper. The notion of planning pregnancies is at least as old as Margaret Sanger's efforts to make contraceptives legal at the turn of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, 'every child a wanted child' has long been a slogan of the pro-choice and abortion rights movements. In current discussions about lesbian and gay parenting the idea is resurfacing, with leaders often proudly claiming that 'none of our children are accidents' (1). Overall, it seems to make sense that children who are wanted at the outset will have a better shot at becoming happy, healthy young people.
But probe further and you will find that at least one group of young people are quite troubled by the deliberateness, or intent, with which they were separated from their biological parent. Last year, colleagues and I released a study of young adults conceived through sperm donation. From a panel of more than one million US households we surveyed 485 young adults who were sperm donor offspring: 562 who were adopted, and 563 who were raised by their biological parents (2).
In a sense, our study can be seen as an inquiry into whether, and how, being intended truly helps children. The first group in our study — the donor offspring — is a sample of entirely planned, intended, and presumably fiercely wanted children. The other two groups are more mixed. We know that in the USA today about half of pregnancies are unintended, babies who came about as a result of messy, often uncontracepted sex, and among them some are adopted, some raised by their biological parents.
So what did our study show? Does being explicitly intended spell terrific child outcomes, or at least better outcomes than for children conceived in other ways? Actually, no — quite the opposite. As a group, the donor offspring were faring the worst. Compared to those who were adopted, they were hurting more, more confused, and felt more isolated from their families. Compared to those raised by their biological parents, significantly more suffered from addiction, delinquency, and depression (2).
These findings are echoed in stories from around the world. Many of the narratives found at the global story-telling project AnonymousUs.org evoke the pain of deliberate separation from biological parents. Or take what Damian Adams, an Australian donor conceived adult, says about the difference between adoption and donor conception: 'The key and most important difference is intent'. Adoption, Adams writes, 'is used as a last resort to ameliorate, but not solve, the tragedy of an existing child whose biological parents are unable for whatever reason to care for it'. In contrast, with donor conception 'the intent is to separate and deprive the child of one or both biological connections', even before the child is conceived (3).
Let me note here that few donor-offspring activists single out gay and lesbian parents as a particular concern. My impression is that such activists generally fall into two camps: either they feel that donor conception should be available to pretty much anyone, so long as protections for the child's right to know the identity of both parents are put in place; or they believe that donor conception is not okay and they are against anyone — gay, straight, married, or not — using it. But because some of today's most vocal proponents of intentional parenthood are found among gay and lesbian leaders and their family law supporters, the debate about how much intentional parenthood matters cannot help but get entangled in the debate about gay- and lesbian-headed families.
For now, the main point is this: the value of intentional parenthood is not a settled question, but rather a hotly contested one. With growing numbers of children being deliberately denied a relationship with at least one of their parents, the stories of today's donor conceived adults are just the tip of the iceberg.