Culture-War Conservatives Battle Sperm-Donor Business

Mike Agliolo / Corbis

Over the summer, two movies that both used sperm donors as plot devices sent the conservative "commentariat" into a conniption. After Jennifer Aniston, who plays a woman who uses a sperm donor to become pregnant in The Switch, advocated for a broad definition of family ("Love is love, and family is what is around you and who is in your immediate sphere"), Bill O'Reilly took to the airwaves to blast her attitude as "destructive to society." And The Kids Are All Right (an indie confection about a lesbian couple, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, raising two kids conceived with an anonymous sperm donor) drew the venom of New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser, who dubbed it a "Hollywood … end run around morality."

But behind the heated rhetoric, a much more serious campaign is underway. The opening salvo on this latest front in the culture wars came in May when a study, "My Daddy's Name Is Donor," found that donor offspring are more likely to "struggle with serious, negative outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse, and depression," and "experience profound struggles with their origins and identities." The study, funded by the Institute for American Values, offered a prescription: laws requiring sperm donors to reveal their identities to their offspring.

While that may seem wholly rational, dig a little deeper, and it's clear there's a broader agenda at work. The Institute for American Values has for the last 23 years sought to guard heterosexual marriages from the threats of homosexuality—and for lesbians looking to start a family, sperm donation is often involved. The IAV, though, does not stop there. "When we're talking about sperm donation, I have real concerns about anybody using it," says Elizabeth Marquardt, the vice president of family studies at IAV and a coauthor of the study. "If a married heterosexual couple came to me and said, 'We're thinking about this,' I'd say I'm opposed. But definitely, the single-mom-by-choice offspring, based on our data, are hurting the most." She adds: "It's just a high-risk strategy, emotionally or otherwise, for creating a baby."

In other words, IAV looks most askance on unmarried mothers—which, given their stance against gay marriage, includes lesbian mothers. It's an attitude that's becoming increasingly at odds with public opinion; a recent study by Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell found that 68 percent of his survey's respondents view same-sex couples with children as a family, up from 54 percent in 2003.

Women who have used sperm donors bristle at the assertion that they're damaging their children. "They're trying to scare people in trying to say that these children will be tortured and miserable. It's just not true," says Jane Mattes, 67, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist who founded Single Mothers by Choice in 1981; her son is now 30. The IAV and others on the right, she says, are "getting smarter. Instead of saying the women shouldn't do this, they're saying the children will suffer, which is really sad. Children suffer for all sorts of reasons, often not having to do with conception."

The need to equate donor conception with adoption is an important part of this strategy—and speaks to IAV's ideological underpinnings. "Adoption is treated like an institution and donor conception is treated like a market," Marquardt says. "That little insight explains a lot! What's funny is that over the years, when I've talked to people about this issue, one of the common reactions is having a baby with a sperm donor—isn't that just like adoption? But adoption is a good and vital pro-child institution that finds families for children who need them." Adoption is also highly regulated, involving home screenings and background checks; why, they argue, should sperm or egg donation be any different? It's a subtle way of arguing that life begins not just at conception, but preconception.

It also makes it possible for laws to exist that would prevent gay couples from having access to the procedure, just as they are banned from adopting in some states, including Florida and Utah. "One of the things I like to do is say, 'Let's treat it like adoption if it's just like adoption, where there are home screenings and people being told you're not fit to be a parent in this way. One of the reasons why people do donor conception instead of adoption is it's much more private. A social worker doesn't come to your home. It's much more private and that's why people do it," says Marquardt.

Of course, people who just have sex and get pregnant also don't require a social worker coming by their home to deem them worthy parents, and Marquardt immediately qualifies her statement to say that she "wouldn't want to live in a society of forced abortions or taking children away from their birth mothers." Instead, she says, there needs to be "strong norms that help encourage people. 'Hey, moms, one of the best things you can give your child is a baby's father.' "

Already, the IAV's allies are getting their way. In May, Arizona nearly passed a law that banned compensation for egg donors. But the watered-down legislation that passed banned embryonic-stem-cell research and mandated what opponents termed onerous, new informed-consent procedures.

The Center for Arizona Policy, a nonprofit organization "committed to protecting and defending the family," was a proponent of the legislation. On their Web site, they write that "these bills protect women and preborn children and recognize the basic human dignity of every person, including those at the earliest stages of development."

It's this language—"preborn children," the "earliest stages of development"—that is most alarming. And, indeed, Marna Gatlin, founder of Parents via Egg Donation, sees a more sinister side to the IAV study. "The conservative right has wanted for a long time to control women's choices. This is just another way of doing that," she says. "I feel like if the government steps in and starts regulating egg and sperm donation, then guess what else they're going to come in and say they need to change? Roe v. Wade."