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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Myth of Fatherlessness

A child cannot exist without a father, even one paid to stay out of the way.

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The story of a man with 96 children went a little viral last weekend. Dylan Stone-Miller, profiled by the Wall Street Journal, has fathered just under 100 babies after a prolific season of sperm donation in college and shortly after. Now, he has quit his job to drive around the country, attempting to find and meet his plentiful offspring, of whom he has managed to trace down one quarter so far.

“Donating,” of course, is not really an accurate term for what Stone-Miller was doing. He was selling, for $100 per vial, to a sperm bank called Xytex. The mothers—single women and lesbian couples—are the majority of sperm buyers, for obvious reasons, have to pay between $300 and $1,500 per vial.

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The children, meanwhile, have been paying in quite a different way, as the Journal article details. While some of the women are more willing to allow Stone-Miller into his children’s lives, others are afraid of what his presence might suggest to the children: the reality that they have a dad, even one who has been intentionally cut out of the photo. One of the mothers recoils at this: “He is not her dad. Period. If she were to [call Stone-Miller ‘Dad’] in front of us, we would straight up say, ‘Dylan is not your dad. He will never be your dad. You don’t have a dad. You have a donor.’”

Simply saying something does not make it true. A child comes with a father and cannot be created without one. This is so obvious that it should go without saying. The genetic similarities that “donors” see in the faces of their offspring, not to mention the lengths to which anonymously conceived children will go to uncover their fathers’ identities, and the deep loss of identity they feel in their absence, all speak to the very real, metaphysical connection between a father and child—one just as real as that which we recognize between a mother and child—even if all of polite society denies it.

Indeed, many donor-conceived kids know something is off even before they know that their genetic father or mother is not their social parent. Upon learning the truth, they often describe having felt a profound, even earth-shattering, sense of clarity: the unexplained character traits suddenly all make sense.

Children long to know their heritage, and the data on anonymously conceived children bear this out at a biological level that belies any arguments exclusively from nurture. This is one reason the unknown thousands of children conceived anonymously each year have also been the loudest voices campaigning for an end to every type of anonymity in the donor process; those who have lived through it know that the difference between a dad and their dad is not negligible. But while anonymity is certainly harmful, this complaint falls short of addressing the biggest problem with the market for reproductive materials.

Beyond a child's right to know her father is a child’s right to that father, a right for her to learn who she is by learning whose she is. This belonging is not erased simply because money changes hands. We may say that sperm donor fathers such as Stone-Miller have sold their blessings for a bowl of stew, and we would be right to describe it as such, but here, the analogy breaks down. A sperm donor sells the blessing, perhaps many times and through many pairs of hands, and still that blessing will spend a lifetime chasing him down just to know where her blue eyes came from.

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In their major 2010 study on the effects of donor conception on young adults, “My Daddy’s Name Is Donor,” Karen Clark, Elizabeth Marquardt, and Norval D. Glenn surveyed 485 Americans conceived through donor sperm or egg to learn how they had fared. The story of one British donor offspring, Christine Whipp, is especially striking:

My ancestral home was a glass sample jar, and my [biological] parents never knew one another in either the personal or the biblical sense. I couldn’t name a single person who shared this strange, science-fiction style background, and found myself feeling more alone and completely separate from the rest of the human race than I had ever felt before.

This is the nightmare that results from lab-made babies. It is not without victims.

The novel belief that every American has a right to her own child, whether or not she can physically conceive one, is a natural spillover from the privatized understanding of marriage we saw cemented in Griswold and Obergefell, though it was percolating long before then. If marriage exists solely for the happiness and personal fulfillment of adults, then children are merely the accessories to this individualist pursuit.

This private view of family has become so commonplace; the “triumph of the therapeutic,” as Carl Trueman called it, has been so complete; that even the very adults who suffered at the hand of these fragmenting reproductive technologies come back again to affirm it. A majority of the donor-conceived adults in the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” study, despite the tragedy of their own experiences, affirmed that “every person has a right to a child.” But 2.1 kids for every lesbian couple cannot exist without fathers, somewhere—even those who are paid to stay out of the way.