I sat down tonight to write this post, but first I felt the need to write my previous post, “Seeking Representative Samples of Needles in Haystacks.”
Here’s the thing: It’s hard to come up with representative samples of adult donor offspring (as I explained in my last post). It’s even harder to come up with samples of the subgroup of sperm donor offspring who are conceived to lesbian couples. That’s why I have sympathy for researchers who are trying to study the children of lesbian couples.
Still, despite my sympathy, I have to point out that studies of children raised by lesbian moms nearly always rely on convenience or word of mouth samples, and that’s a problem. The new study reported in Pediatrics of the sperm donor conceived offspring of lesbian mothers did precisely this – they rely on a sample of “154 prospective lesbian mothers” who between 1986 and 1992 “volunteered for a study that was designed to follow planned lesbian families from the index children’s conception until they reached adulthood.” Who volunteers for this kind of study? Who knows? It could well be higher-functioning couples. (Ask yourself, if you were in a messed-up relationship – of any kind, hetero or not — would you volunteer to be studied? I wouldn’t.) It’s hard to know what to make of the “Kids of lesbian moms turn out great!” headlines given that great lesbian couples might have volunteered for the study in the first place.
Charlotte Patterson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia, is one of the most well-known scholars of lesbian and gay parent families. In this review essay she published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2006, she traces the progression she and her team followed as they constructed first convenience samples and then samples drawn from known populations. She notes the limitations in both methods. She and her team then tried something I thought was pretty terrific – they sought to draw upon the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a long-running, highly-respected study which yields data sets used by scholars all over the country. Both adolescents and their parents are interviewed. Of about 12,000 subjects, a subsample of the parents said they were in a “marriage or marriage-like relationship” with a person of the same gender. Patterson and her colleagues studied their kids. All 44 of them. Based on the survey responses of that sample of 44 twelve- to eighteen- year olds, Patterson and her colleagues concluded that “the qualities of family relationships rather than the gender of parents’ partners were consistently related to adolescent outcomes.” The old process versus structure argument. Fair enough. But with only 44 adolescents, and limited to the kinds of measures which the Add Health study designers used, I think it’s fair to say that the jury is still out on how children of lesbian and gay parents fare. Still, I respect what Patterson and her colleagues tried to do, and I’m interested in what she does next. (Meanwhile, the next report from the “longitudinal” survey of kids of lesbian moms whose moms volunteered to be studied – as reported in Pediatrics this week – well, I’ll read it, but I’m not sure what if anything we can learn from it.)
So here’s the thing. We gave this our best shot, too. In our sample of adult donor offspring, recruited from an online panel of more than one million U.S. households, of the 485 persons who knew they were sperm donor conceived, 39 of them said they were conceived to a lesbian couple. Yes, only 39. But read the fine print on studies of children of lesbian and gay parents and you’ll see that other studies make pretty grand claims based on sample sizes not much different than that.
So what did we learn about these 39 young people?
46 percent agree, “My sperm donor is half of who I am.”
67 percent agree, “I find myself wondering what my sperm donor’s family is like.”
59 percent agree, “I sometimes wonder if my sperm donor’s family would want to know me.”
44 percent agree, “I have worried that if I try to get more information about or have a relationship with my sperm donor, my mother and/or the father who raised me would feel angry or hurt.”
69 percent agree, “I long to know more about my ethnic or national background.”
44 percent agree, “I feel confused about who is a member of my family and who is not.”
38 percent agree, “It is wrong to deliberately conceive a fatherless child.”
And much more. See Table 2 in our report. Also see findings 6 and 7 of the Fifteen Major Findings summary, which explain how the donor conceived offspring of lesbian couples appear to be both similar to and different than the donor conceived offspring of single mothers or heterosexual couples in our study.
And while you’re at it, see Table 3 as well. There you will see that the offspring of lesbian mothers appear to have about twice the risk of substance abuse problems, compared to persons raised by their biological parents.
The caveat (and we say it several times in the report) is this: With 39 persons in the sample, we don’t know how generalizable these findings are to the broader population of sperm donor conceived persons born to lesbian moms. But every other researcher who studies these populations has the same problem.
How do the sperm donor conceived offspring of lesbian moms fare? The answer is, nobody really knows. But some pretty disturbing questions are raised by the study we released last week. Read My Daddy’s Name is Donor to learn more.