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Are You My Mother? The Changing Norms of Adoption and Donation

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"Open adoption" -- which was a new and upending concept just a few decades ago -- is now the norm within the US. Of the estimated 14,000 to 18,000 domestic infant adoptions each year, 55 percent are completely "open", meaning there is ongoing and direct contact between the birth family and the adoptive family, according to a report released this week by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute .

Another 40 percent are "mediated", meaning non-identifying letters and photos are exchanged using an adoption agency or an attorney as a go-between. Only the remaining five percent, therefore, are "closed" adoptions, where the birthmother surrenders all future contact.

This represents an evolution in adoption circles "From Secrecy and Stigma to Knowledge and Connections," as the report's title suggests. New thinking in the realms of genetics, psychology, sociology, and law all came to the conclusion that everyone is better off -- the child, the birth parents, the adoptive parents -- when there are fewer secrets.

But change is a haphazard, inconsistent thing, and near-assumption in the whole of the adoption world that children have a right to know where they came from has not gained the same toehold in the other processes by which children find parents. Most states still have laws that protect the identity of sperm donors from offspring who want to find them. Egg donors too are generally anonymous.

Should they be?

Elizabeth Marquardt thinks not. A fellow at the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, a controversial think tank centered around the idea that families with a mother and a father are best for children and society, Marquardt's specialty is the study of assisted reproduction, specifically the effects of egg and sperm donation on the children who are conceived.

One much talked about report of hers was "My Daddy's Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation" which concludes:

...on average, young adults conceived through sperm donation are hurting more, are more confused, and feel more isolated from their families. They fare worse than their peers raised by biological parents on important outcomes such as depression, delinquency and substance abuse. Nearly two-thirds agree, "My sperm donor is half of who I am."

And just last month, Marquardt wrote an article in the Atlantic, titled "Do Mothers Matter", which turned her lens on the children conceived using egg donors and womb surrogates. Wouldn't they have the same questions and rights as adoptees, or children conceived with donated sperm? she asked. Or, more bluntly: aren't parents who go through the process of hiring an egg and/or womb donor essentially "helping themselves to other people's children?" If full disclosure is expected for a child who was adopted after conception, why is that not the norm for children who are, in effect, conceived with the intention that they will be "adopted?" Add in the reality, Marquardt points out, that many children conceived using gamete donors are born to single or same sex parents, and you find yourself wrestling with the additional question of whether it is right to conceive a child who will never have a mother (when donor eggs are used) or a father (donor sperm.)

A swath of parenting bloggers decisively disagreed with the idea that these donors have any of the rights or responsibilities of parents. "To imply that a biological mother is somehow more important than the mother or father who is actually changing your diapers, reading you bedtime stories, and offering you unconditional love is absolutely ridiculous," writes April Peveteaux over at The Stir. Agreed blogger Sierra, on Babble:

I find Marquardt's framing of this issue as one of children "conceived never to know their mothers" patently offensive. If I chose to donate eggs or carry a surrogate pregnancy, I wouldn't be the mother of that child. The child's parents would be the people who raised and nurtured her, who got up in the night to care for her when she had a nightmare and struggled with her homework night after night. It's not the birth that makes me a mom, and it certainly isn't the ability to produce a healthy egg. It's everything that comes after.

But isn't that the same argument in favor of closed adoption for all these years? That it is not the genetics, but the actual parenting, that makes a parent? And haven't the decades taught us that it is, in fact, a mixture of both? Yes, adoptive parents are the child's parents. But biological parents are not secrets to be buried, but building blocks to be embraced.

It should follow then, that the next new norm would be open donation, in the paradigm of open adoption. The technology makes this seem new, but it is really a lesson that's already been learned. More knowledge, more understanding, more communication...these things don't weaken the ties between parent and child. They strengthen those bonds instead.