Studying the Sperm-Donor Conceived Offspring of Lesbian Mothers

06.11.2010, 1:35 AM

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?

Some examples:

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.

12 Responses to “Studying the Sperm-Donor Conceived Offspring of Lesbian Mothers”

  1. Susan says:

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as I am myself a “Single Mother by Choice.” Here’s my dilemma: I am a Christian, conservative/libertarian, woman with a graduate degree and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank. Trying to find a loving, supportive mate who shares my values was a top priority though my 30s. I reached 40 single and disheartened. Would you prefer that women like me refrain from reproducing, leaving that task to those less educated and less selective?

  2. Tom says:

    Dear Susan, I would prefer that single women, or indeed anyone, did not deny children a meaningful relationship with their fathers.

  3. Dear Susan — If you already have a child/children, congratulations. Every child is precious and a gift to the world.

    You asked my point of view. My point of view is that one of the best gifts a mother can give her child is her child’s father.

    My very best to you and your family,

  4. Marty says:


    Forgive me for saying so, but if an educated christian woman with money in the bank can’t find a man worthy of being her husband, well, then you have to ask yourself what kind of Mother she would be to her kids.

    I’m not sayin, just sayin.

  5. John Howard says:

    Marty, the problem is that the man might actually think they were his kids too, he might think she was his wife, and he was her husband, for ever. That would be unbearable, these women (and there are more single women than lesbians doing this) want to be the primary parent of their children, they don’t want some man expecting to name them after his mother or uncle. Ugh, imagine how galling that would be to feminist women who believe reproductive rights refer only to women.

  6. Tom says:

    John, that criticism is taking it much too far.

  7. Marty says:

    Yeah that’s not the way I read it either John. I read it as she looked high & low for a father/husband for 10 years, then gave up and proceeded to start a family on her own.

    But that begs the question, if finding a stable loving relationship with a suitable man is so problematic for her, what kind of relationship can her kid expect?

    Call it Natural Selection — perhaps Susan shouldn’t be having kids at all… what with finding a suitable father being one of the time-honored requirements for such things.

  8. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    OK guys, she wrote about her personal experience, and she asked my advice, which I offered in response to her question. Let’s not examine her otherwise. She asked her question I think with a lot of sincerity.

  9. John Howard says:

    I wonder if Susan would have been able to settle on a husband, and if the men she met might have been more husband-worthy, if sperm donation had not been a Plan B option the whole time.

    I think sperm donation being legal screwed up everyone’s thinking and behavior. Instead of a man merely having to be a better choice than other men, now he has to be a better choice than no man, and that’s something only the most desirable men can hope to be burdened with. By “the most desirable”, I mean, the ten or twelve most desirable men in the world, not the most desirable man around. That guy still comes in a distant second.

    And I think it makes men behave less respectfully in response, passive-aggressively returning the disrespect that being declared unnecessary inflicts on us. If sperm donation were not allowed, men would become more respectful and responsible, I guarantee it.

  10. John, do me a favor and offer your analysis but don’t
    make it about Susan herself.

    My thanks,

  11. John Howard says:

    Right, I was talking about single moms by choice in general. Certainly my point isn’t just about any one particular person, but how legal sperm donation affects everyone negatively. It has affected me, even though I haven’t used it or been born by it.

    How is it considered legal? What is the argument for it being legal?

    Do people realize that stopping it would be extremely easy, and is in our power?

  12. Tom says:

    Good question, John. I think it’s a very wise idea to look at donor-conception from the point of view of its proponents.