Over on the Family Scholars Blog, quoting from his own article in the Weekly Standard, Brad Wilcox writes:
But there are good reasons to worry about this latest manifestation of fatherlessness. Listening directly to the voices of donor-conceived children should give us pause. Kyle Pruett, a psychiatrist working at the Yale Child Study Center, reports in a recent book that such children have an unmet “hunger for an abiding paternal presence.” He quotes one girl as saying, “Mommy, what did you do with my daddy? You know I need a daddy or I can’t be a child.” [...]
But there is an even more basic reason to worry about the deliberate creation of fatherless children. The best evidence from the social sciences shows that fatherless children as a group fare less well than children reared in intact, married families…. Take crime. One study of 6,403 boys carried out by scholars at Princeton and the University of California at San Francisco found that boys raised in single-parent homes are twice as likely as others to end up in prison. Or teenage pregnancy. University of Arizona psychologist Bruce Ellis, who studied 762 girls in the United States and New Zealand, found that girls who saw their father leave the family before age six were more than six times as likely to have a teenage pregnancy as girls whose fathers stuck around through their entire childhood. Or suicide. A study of all Swedish children between 1991 and 1998 found that those in single-parent families were twice as likely to attempt suicide and 50 percent more likely to succeed in committing suicide than children in two-parent families. Note that these studies control for factors like race, education, and poverty that might otherwise distort the relationship between family structure and child well-being.
But those studies don’t control for the most important factor of all, for the argument Brad is making: whether or not a child is donor-conceived.
Although it’s certainly true that being raised by a single parent (not just single mothers) has been shown by legitimate research to worsen the odds for children, the research also shows that some children raised by single parents turn out fine. The question is, are studies about the experiences of children of single parents in general really representative of donor-conceived children of single mothers in particular? Or are those children perhaps especially likely to wind up in the “doing fine” population?
It certainly seems possible that donor-conceived children may do better than many children of single parents. Although they have only one parent, that parent – because her pregnancy had to be carefully planned – is likely to be older than the average single mother, with more resources and a better support network. And, perhaps, an on-average higher enthusiasm for being a parent.
Or perhaps not. There’s no way of knowing for sure. However, Brad’s article should have acknowledged this limitation in the data he cites.
Looking around, I found only one study focused on donor-conceived children of single mothers. Contrary to Brad’s expectations, that study found that “this route to parenthood does not necessarily seem to have an adverse effect on mothers’ parenting ability or the psychological adjustment of the child.” Of course, since that study is a long-term study that has just barely begun (the kids were only two years old at the time the most recent report was written), it’s hardly certain, either. (UPDATE: In comments, Dianne pointed out another study with similar findings, this time looking at seven year olds).
I also had a problem with Brad’s point about “listening directly to the voices of donor-conceived children.” The evidence Brad quotes appears anecdotal, and so cannot tell us how the typical donor-conceived child feels (I’ve read anecdotal accounts of donor-conceived children who said they had no problem with it). We’d need surveys of donor-conceived children before concluding that the quotes Brad provides are or are not representative.
Reproductive freedom is not a minor part of life. Before even considering a ban on donor conception, we should have solid evidence of harm. So far, that evidence is lacking.