Children of “Murphy Browns” Paying the Price

Dan Quayle was taken to task many years ago for his “Murphy Brown” speech, in which he said:

Ultimately however, marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus, and the use of social sanctions. Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this.
It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”
I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood; network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in , this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong…It’s time to talk again about family, hard work, integrity and personal responsibility. We cannot be embarrassed out of our belief that two parents, married to each other, are better in most cases for children than one.

As Quayle said, we social conservative are often pooh-poohed as moralizing busy-bodies. But there’s a reason why we care about such things as promoting traditional families. No matter that we can all point to specific, acute examples of imperfect “traditional” families–and there is no “perfect” family–conservatives believe that the basis for a sound family is having a parent of either sex. Dan Quayle voiced those beliefs 14 years ago and since then, many people–both liberal and conservative–have conceded that Quayle was right:

Ten years later, most anyone involved in child development agrees that two parents are preferable. He beamed while pointing out a recent New York Times headline that read “The Controversial Truth: Two-Parent Families Are Better.”
In 1992, discussing illegitimacy was taboo. Most politicians had steered clear of the subject since 1965, when a then-obscure assistant secretary of labor by the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a report linking poverty among black children to the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births. The report was denounced, and Moynihan was labeled a racist.
During the 1990s, the climate changed.
Due to a push by conservatives — and some liberals — and to a growing body of research, the subject of illegitimacy became legitimate.
Press coverage of the topic grew. And, as welfare reform emerged as a major policy priority in Congress, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the government needed to take concrete steps to reduce out-of-wedlock births. A 1993 Atlantic magazine cover story was titled “Dan Quayle Was Right.” And later that year, Clinton declared, “I believe the country would be a lot better off if children were born to married couples.”
“We finally removed the gag,” says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Rector has helped draft many family-formation provisions of Republican welfare reform bills in Congress. In the 1996 federal welfare reform law, Congress approved federal funding for sexual-abstinence programs and a bonus to states that reduce their ratios of out-of-wedlock births

Now, all of this expert opinion is fine and dandy, but a new set of voices is making themselves heard. The kids who have lived through the experience. Katrina Clark was one of those kids:

When she was 32, my mother — single, and worried that she might never marry and have a family — allowed a doctor wearing rubber gloves to inject a syringe of sperm from an unknown man into her uterus so that she could have a baby. I am the result: a donor-conceived child.
And for a while, I was pretty angry about it.
I was angry at the idea that where donor conception is concerned, everyone focuses on the “parents” — the adults who can make choices about their own lives. The recipient gets sympathy for wanting to have a child. The donor gets a guarantee of anonymity and absolution from any responsibility for the offspring of his “donation.” As long as these adults are happy, then donor conception is a success, right?
Not so. The children born of these transactions are people, too.
Those of us in the first documented generation of donor babies — conceived in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when sperm banks became more common and donor insemination began to flourish — are coming of age, and we have something to say.
I’m here to tell you that emotionally, many of us are not keeping up. We didn’t ask to be born into this situation, with its limitations and confusion. It’s hypocritical of parents and medical professionals to assume that biological roots won’t matter to the “products” of the cryobanks’ service, when the longing for a biological relationship is what brings customers to the banks in the first place.
We offspring are recognizing the right that was stripped from us at birth — the right to know who both our parents are. {Emphasis mine.}

Clark continues, explaining the void left in her life by not having a father, even to the extent that, while her friends could get mad at their fathers for leaving them through divorce or infidelity, she didn’t even have that option. Then:

When my mother eventually got married, I didn’t get along with her husband. For so long, it had been just the two of us, my mom and I, and now I felt like the odd girl out. When she and I quarreled, this new man in our lives took to interjecting his opinion, and I didn’t like that. One day, I lost my composure and screamed that he had no authority over me, that he wasn’t my father — because I didn’t have one.
That was when the emptiness came over me. I realized that I am, in a sense, a freak. I really, truly would never have a dad. I finally understood what it meant to be donor-conceived, and I hated it.

Eventually, largely because she was afraid of not knowing valuable medical history, she went looking for her donor and was quickly rewarded by finding him. This quick match of her to her donor is rare, as she found out while discussing her situation with other sperm bank kids. She imparts to us what she has learned of the experiences of these other offspring:

My heart went out to those others, especially after I participated in a couple of online groups. When I read some of the mothers’ thoughts about their choice for conception, it made me feel degraded to nothing more than a vial of frozen sperm. It seemed to me that most of the mothers and donors give little thought to the feelings of the children who would result from their actions. It’s not so much that they’re coldhearted as that they don’t consider what the children might think once they grow up.
Those of us created with donated sperm won’t stay bubbly babies forever. We’re all going to grow into adults and form opinions about the decision to bring us into the world in a way that deprives us of the basic right to know where we came from, what our history is and who both our parents are…

The conclusion to her piece is heartwrenching.

As relief about my own situation has come to me, I’ve talked freely and regularly about being donor-conceived, in public and in private. In the beginning, I also talked about it a lot with my biological father. After a bit, though, I noticed that his enthusiasm for our developing relationship seemed to be waning. When I told him of my suspicion, he confirmed that he was tired of “this whole sperm-donor thing.” The irony stings me more each time I think of him saying that. The very thing that brought us together was pushing us in opposite directions.
Even though I’ve only recently come into contact with him, I wouldn’t be able to just suck it up if he stopped communicating with me. There’s still so much I want to know. I want to know him. I want to know his family. I’m certain he has no idea how big a role he has played in my life despite his absence — or because of his absence. If I can’t be too attached to him as my father, I’ll still always be attached to the feeling I now have of having a father.
I feel more whole now than I ever have. I love our conversations, even the most trivial ones. I don’t love him, and I don’t know if I ever will, but I care about him a lot.
Now that he knows I exist, I’m okay if he doesn’t care for me in the same way. But I hope he at least thinks of me sometimes.

Me too.

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17 years ago

Maybe the NY Times should have titled the article “An Inconvenient Truth.”

17 years ago

Remarkable to hear from a child of one of these women. Katrina, you have a right to more than know both your parents. You have the right to have two parents.
Before Murphy Brown, there was the Mary Kay Place character in “The Big Chill”. While Murphy Brown got In The Family Way accidentally (yes, it was an irresponsible accident), Mary Kay Place’s character deliberately chose a one parent family for her child. Because she wanted a child. Full stop. No thought for whether it would be good for the child.
It’s funny, the last sentence of Quayle’s statement didn’t get much play at the time, maybe because too many people didn’t want to hear it. But that’s what matters. And anyone who wants to cast all of this as moral lecturing needs to first answer Katrina.

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