Scattered Seeds

One of the key ideas in my new book The Philosophical Parent is that we see children as self-like because they "come from us"—in one of several senses.  I can't state this as any kind of a universal truth, but it tends to be true, and I think it's with good reason that we see children this way.  We're not delusional.  However, I do have to acknowledge some factors that either intensify the perception of children as self-like or decrease that perception.  I talk about sexism, poverty, high infant mortality rates, and so on.

One factor I didn't write about much is the attitude of sperm donors, egg donors, and surrogate children to offspring who did come from them, but with the understanding that someone else would be the parent.  That understanding is no doubt one of the factors that can decrease the perception of children as self-like.  Another factor that didn't cross my mind is the sheer number of offspring a person has. This issue comes up particularly in conjunction with sperm donation.  I didn't realize it until I recently heard Jacqueline Mroz on the radio talking about her new book Scattered Seeds, but sperm donors can have incredible numbers of children.  She talks about men making donations three times a week for years, and each donation being split into 10 or 20 portions.  The result is that some sperm donors have as many as 200 offspring!

Is there anything troubling about a sperm donor having 200 children?  In early chapters of the book Mroz focusses on Wendy Kramer, mother of a donor-conceived child, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, and a critic of the sperm bank industry.  Kids very often want to know about their biological father or even meet him. They see their origin as central to who they are.  Most sperm donors are open to being found and having a relationship of some sort with their offspring, but the worry is that the man's willingness is likely to be reduced, when he has not 2 or 10 or even 20 children, but 200.  You just couldn't experience meeting your offspring as anything terribly profound if you went through it 200 times.  Thus, some donor conceived offspring are doomed to feeling like a mass-produced product, in relation to their biological fathers.  Kramer favors federal regulation, record-keeping, and limits on the number of children a donor can produce.

Whenever Kramer is the focus, Mroz seems rather worried about the sperm bank industry and seems sympathetic to restrictions.  But in the last chapters of the book, the angst goes away.  She focuses on the offspring of Todd, an Apple Executive with 200 offspring.  He treasures all his offspring, inviting them for lavish get-togethers, giving them gifts and traveling with them, but restricting himself to a rich uncle sort of role, not crossing the line into playing an inappropriate father role. It's all good, from the kids' perspective too.  They don't see the father-child relationship or the sibling relationship being diluted or cheapened; they don't feel like mass-produced commodities. They feel like a clan, as opposed to a family.  Though they are actually half-siblings with the other 199 offspring of Todd, they regard each other like most of us regard cousins. As long as we're willing to expand our conception of family and kin, no harm done.

I'm not sure why she ends this way, as if this case were more representative, rather than ending with some of the more painful stories in the book--stories about donor fathers who want more of a relationship than their offspring desire, stories about kids who write Father's Day cards that they put in a box year after year, stories about marriages that fall apart, because donor fathers get more involved with their offspring than their wives can tolerate. If there were a limit of 10 children per donor, just as many parents would get to experience parenthood and just as many children would get to enjoy existing.  Wouldn't some of the problems with donor conception be alleviated?  Why not support more regulation?

Overall, this is a really interesting book, but I wish it had better "back material." It has no bibliography, so it's not easy to look up the books and articles Mroz references. It also has no index, so you can't look up, for example, all the references to Wendy Kramer or to other people who are discussed in multiple chapters.  It has endnotes, but instead of citing sources in the usual way, so people can consult them, Mroz always uses urls, some of them many lines long. (Where urls are appropriate, why not use a url shortener?)  Also, there are also a few errors here and there--doesn't she mean to say that George Washington was infertile, not impotent?  In one place the word should be "motility", not "modality".  But now I'm being picky!

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