Do Mothers Matter?

How surrogacy and egg donation, which first gained national attention in the 1980s, are bringing into the world a class of children beset by confusion, depression, and loss.


Do mothers matter? Having no mother was -- at least until recently -- widely agreed to be a tragedy. Psychiatric case studies, Disney movies, and well-known spirituals such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" have testified to the importance of mothers and the pain of mother loss. But such views have not meant that every child has lived in a society that affirms the importance of the child's bond with his or her mother. Children have been denied their mothers because of class biases (see, poor); racial and ethnic biases (Indian, Aborigine); as part of severe civil conflict (Argentina, Dirty War); amid widespread, institutionalized human rights abuses (slavery); or because their mothers were rightly or wrongly perceived to be unfit (see: history of adoption, good, bad, and ugly).

Yet even as the broad history of helping ourselves to other people's children continues to be probed and largely condemned (except in the case of adoption, where most reasonable people agree that such an institution must exist in order to find loving homes for children in need of them), a newer and notably deliberate form of mother loss has sprung up, one that receives relatively little debate and is often presented as benign or even good, without question. I am referring, of course, to the practices of surrogacy and egg donation.

When surrogacy and egg donation first gained national attention in the 1980s the children in question usually had a social mother, a woman, herself infertile, married to a man and seeking to achieve pregnancy with the use of another woman's body. Today we are witnessing an equal opportunity run on deliberately conceiving motherless children. Men, alone or in pairs, can buy eggs and rent wombs, too. A child can be denied knowledge of and a relationship with his or her generally fit mother simply because other adults -- the child's prospective legal parents -- wish it to be so, and are willing to pay to make it so. These transactions occur with the aid of doctors, lawyers, and clinics licensed by the state, and thus with tacit approval from the state.

I wrote about some of these new single fathers by choice in my recent report, "One Parent or Five: A Global Look at Today's New Intentional Families." There is Ian Mucklejohn, father of three. In 2001, at the age of 54, the British citizen became the father of triplets conceived with an egg donor and a gestational surrogate mother, both living in the U.S. Mucklejohn soon became a hero for other single fathers-to-be when he won British citizenship and birth certificates with a blank in the space for "mother" for all three children.

Or look to in India where, in 2005, a middle-aged accountant, Amit Banerjee, became that nation's first known single father by choice. His doctor enthused that the new father "was a perfect candidate for ART. As a physician I could not deny him the available technology that hundreds of childless couples are opting to fulfill their dreams of a family." A reporter asked, what about the child's loss of ever knowing his mother? The doctor replied with a question: "What about a child whose mother dies on the delivery bed?" In other words, some children already begin life under the gravely tragic circumstances of their mother dying in childbirth. Is it not the right of would-be parents intentionally to create such children -- and is it not the obligation of doctors to help them do it?

Single fathers by choice are found in the U.S. too. Andy Abowitz, a "successful, single gay man living in Philadelphia," twice paid a 25-year-old doctoral student to donate her eggs and a gestational surrogate to carry the pregnancy, resulting in a girl and, 20 months later, twin boys. The egg donor enthused, "I think it's really fantastic when children are born into situations where they're wanted that much." And while it's true that Abowitz seems to want the children very much, how will the children make sense of an egg donor and surrogate mother who did not want them? How will they even make sense of what "mother" means when they have a genetic mother and a separate birth mother, neither of whom are in their daily lives?

Sometimes it is two men rather than one who conceive this way. Picking an egg donor and a surrogate, gay couples from the obscure to the wildly famous -- examples include Elton John and David Furnish, or Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka -- can do this too. Generally moneyed and armed with a team of baby nurses, nannies, and house cleaners, most of these fathers probably do fine in providing material comfort, opportunity, and a loving home for the children. But what about the children? Do their mothers matter to them?

We are now learning more than ever before about the experience of an arguably similar class of children, those deliberately denied their biological fathers via sperm donation. In studies such as "My Daddy's Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation," which I co-investigated with University of Texas sociology professor Norval Glenn and donor-conceived adult Karen Clark; or in stories posted at the popular website; or found in a newly-released documentary, Anonymous Father's Day, we are hearing that being deliberately denied your father can be both painful and bewildering, especially in a society that says your loss should not matter.

Based on a representative sample, in "My Daddy's Name is Donor" we reported that most sperm donor-conceived persons strongly object to anonymous donation of sperm. Nearly half feel troubled by the role of money in their conception. Most want to know about their biological father's family, and they wonder if that family would want to know about them. Compared to their peers raised by biological parents, sperm donor-conceived persons are more likely to struggle with delinquency, addiction, and depression.

Clearly, at least some of these kids are not really all right. It seems entirely plausible that at least some conceived never to know their mothers might share the feelings of the sample in our study. For decades we have debated whether fathers matter. Must we now debate whether mothers matter, too?

Image: Essl/Shutterstock.