By Kristi Blazi Lado
I’ll admit that that my ignorance on donor conception was somewhat willful. The human rights abuses in adoption has occupied so much of my psychological space that I just haven’t been open to learning about something that had so much potential to be worse.
When I first saw the promos for MTV’s Generation Cryo, my first thought was for the love of all-that-is-holy, no doorstep ambushes, Jersey Shore behavior, or anything that would make people who are searching for biological relatives look like lunatics. I’m glad I gave it a chance because not only was the subject was treated respectfully but I was able to fully appreciate the parallels between adoptees and the donor-conceived.
Generation Cryo is a documentary series following sperm donor-conceived Breeanna Speicher in her journey to find her biological father. Bree tours the country to meet some of her 15 half-siblings that she discovered through the Donor Sibling Registry, a non-profit organization created to help siblings connect with each other and possibly their donors. A few agree to travel to
California to support Bree in her search.
In watching this show, I observed family dynamics that were glaringly similar, if not identical to closed adoption situations.
Many of the young adults in this show were very worried about hurting their parents, particularly their fathers, and in the worst cases were saddled with managing their parents’ feelings of insecurity. Some seemed to accept this as being their responsibility and (much like in-the-fog adoptees) modeled their parents’ attitudes toward the donor. In the worst cases, meeting the donor was seen as an act of disrespect to the parents.
It was very sad to witness Jonah and Hilit’s dad, Eric, struggle with not being their genetic father and the effect it had on his family. He admits that he was hesitant to tell his children how they were conceived because he wanted them to be “his” kids. He remarked, “Adding donor… adding siblings is not my definition of family.” Eric’s wife, Terri, is the only one in their family that expresses interest in meeting the donor. I love what she says in response to Eric’s disapproval: “I would want to know where they came from because that would help me know my children better.” Exactly. Isn’t that why adoptees search? We want to know ourselves better.
Eric wasn’t the only parent with unresolved issues. When Paige and Molly inform their mother of the donor’s name she looked less-than-pleased remarking, “This is going to hurt him [their father] a lot… more than you know,” and “You are mine. I don’t want to share you with him.”
Luckily for Breeanna, her two mothers were very supportive of her search. I couldn’t help but notice that the three siblings expressing the most interest in meeting the donor – Breeanna, Jesse, and Jayme – were the three that didn’t grow up with a father figure. I don’t feel this is a coincidence. It seemed easier for these families to deal with the idea of having the donor in their lives because there was no perceived threat to an existing father’s role.
The parents’ approval of the siblings’ relationships, while being a great thing, also (in my opinion) exposes the hypocrisy of those who disapproved of their children finding the donor. In other words, relationships with biological relatives are considered healthy & ok as long as nobody feels as if they are being replaced. It was obvious to me that the ease of which the siblings relate to one another was likely due to the fact that their parents were not threatened by these relationships.
This show has strengthened my conviction that the degree to which the parents have come to grips with their infertility and accepted the truth of their child’s origins will have a significant impact on the level of anxiety that child will feel about searching for his roots.
If we are going to place children in the position of being adopted or donor-conceived, we must correct the notion that the children, the products of these institutions, are responsible for their parents’ happiness. Specifically, they should not be expected to tiptoe around the subject of their beginnings in order to fulfill their parents’ dreams of having a 100% biological family. Parents: The reality is that other people helped create your children. You chose this. It is your responsibility as a parent to help your child process this reality in a healthy way. It is perfectly normal and natural for a person to want to know the families that contributed their DNA. It is what makes a person what they are, and that is very important. Please treat it as such.
Even some siblings whose parents were very supportive of their contact with the biological father worry about hurting the parent(s) who raised them. Adoptees, even those with open and supportive families, almost always worry about hurting their adoptive parents as well. Why is this so? The notion that there can only be one mother and one father in a family seems to be deeply embedded in our culture. How many of us adoptees have been asked if we want to know our “real” (biological) parents, or outright told that our adoptive parents are the only set that should be considered “real?” We are conditioned to try to make all families fit in the nuclear model which, in an adoptive or donor family, is a denial of truth. Whether the child is an adoptee or donor-conceived, the bare fact is separate individuals are fulfilling roles that we traditionally define as “mother” or “father.” One or both individuals that contributed everything we are made of are not the one(s) that parented us. Both are equally important components of who we are.
Do donor-conceived individuals experience “the fog” like we do?
First the positive… and this is huge. I love, love, LOVE, the way the siblings in this show came together and (despite their varying attitudes toward the donor) genuinely supported one other. As an adoptee (and my natural mother’s only child), this is something that gave me a stab of… what’s the word? Not jealousy but longing. I would have been ecstatic if I’d found siblings at the end of my search. What a gift it would have been to have been supported during my search by siblings who understood my exact situation.
That said, many of the siblings had ambivalence toward the donor or unwillingness to deal with the feelings surrounding their conception.
Some adoptees describe what is known in our circles as “the fog” to be a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts. That is not to say that adoptive parents are aggressive captors (usually) but the child feels like he must identify with or mirror his parents’ feelings about his birth parents (and anything else having to do with his adoption) in order to function within the family unit.
Hilit and Jonah express over and over that they do not wish to meet the donor. I have to wonder what seems obvious to us adoptees: Are they convinced they feel this way because they’ve repeated it so many times to placate their father? Would they feel the same way if Eric had been more open??
Sometimes “the fog” is simply a denial or repression of feelings that threaten to become overwhelming.
Bree’s half-brother, Jesse Bogden, had very supportive parents. His father had taken the initiative to find his siblings on the Donor Sibling Registry when Jesse was in 7th grade, and encouraged him to know more about the donor. However, Jesse was uncomfortable with his emotions about being donor-conceived. He admitted that in the past he did not talk about it and had reacted with anger when his father found his siblings. He also told Bree of insensitive comments made to him by extended family about not being blood-related. Even his sister said she was “more of a miracle” because she was conceived naturally (at which point I had to refrain from throwing something at the television). Ironically, when the siblings obtain a yearbook picture of the donor, they think Jesse looks the most like him. When he balks, Breeanna jokingly says he’s in denial (she was right). Thankfully, in the end Jesse was more at ease with his circumstances and seemed to have benefited from knowing his siblings.
I personally identified with the scene after the siblings find out the donor’s name. They all sat in silence and Bree remarks, “I feel like I forget how to feel.” Jonah responds, “Because you’re so used to blocking it out.”
Whether in or out of the fog, numbing can be a major defense mechanism our brains employ to avoid being overwhelmed with emotion. It can sometimes take a significant amount of time for adoptees to process new information about their origins because they must rewrite their entire narrative. This seems no different for the participants in Generation Cryo.
Human Rights (or lack thereof)
We’ll start with the scene where a handful of the siblings pay a visit to the California Cryo Bank to see if they can make contact with their genetic father. My stomach turned when I saw the process was almost identical to an adoption agency. The representative for the cryo company explained that they would send a letter to the donor letting him know his offspring want to meet him. If there was no response, they would assume this was a “no” and would take no further action.
Shortly afterwards, Breeanna decides to strike out on her own to find the donor because the cryo bank, “Didn’t seem to be moving at the speed of light.” We hear you, sister.
One of the most contentious moments of the series was when Breeanna and her half-brother Julian disagree over their right to contact the donor. Julian had previously attempted to make contact through the cryo bank with no luck, but called searching for donor independently “immoral.” He says of the donor, “People do this thinking they’re gonna have ultimate anonymity because that’s what the cryo bank ensures.”
It pains me to hear someone so perfectly willing to give up on knowing his genetic other half because he might disrupt the guy’s life. It shows just how much we are programmed as adoptees/cryo kids to accept that our needs are secondary.
Bree remarks that, “It’s dumb to think you’re going to bring kids into the world and they’re not going to be interested in you at all.” I concur. If you participate in creating a human being, no matter what the means, you have a minimal responsibility to allow them access to their ancestry, inform them of your ongoing medical history, and (even if it’s just once) allow them look into your eyes.
Julian asserts that the donor was, “just making money and that’s fine.” No Julian, it shouldn’t be fine.
I see a huge need for proper counseling of donors & recipients. By proper, I mean completely informing both parties of what they will potentially have to deal with in the future as the result of their decisions.
I would imagine the reason cryo banks don’t appear to be doing this is similar to adoption agencies: It isn’t in their best interest because money is the first priority, not human beings. If either party (donor/birth parents or receiving/adoptive parents) was fully aware of what they were getting into there would potentially be less product (people willing to donate/give up children) and less demand for said product (gametes & embryos or children available for adoption).
Just as I am in favor of open adoptions, I am completely against donor anonymity. I’m not convinced that this industry should exist, period, but if it has to, let’s ensure that the child’s rights to know who they came from are intact.
Remember my fear that the cryo industry might be worse than the adoption industry?
I had the pleasure of speaking with The Donor Sibling Registry founder, and Generation Cryo associate producer Wendy Kramer, who confirmed that cryogenics practices are as out-of-control as adoption, if not more so. “It’s the wild west in terms of the law,” she states, explaining that Cryo companies are not required by law to keep accurate records (or any records for that matter) about their donors or who purchases sperm/eggs/embryos. “The largest sibling group on our registry is about two-hundred. And that’s just the people who registered with DSR. These companies proclaim to have strict limitations on the size of each sibling group. Clearly with some, this is not the case.” In other words, we have a full-blown public health issue on our hands, especially if large sibling groups who do not know they are siblings are concentrated in one geographic area.
For years Wendy has advocated for laws that would regulate gamete donation practices, including restricting how many offspring are generated from each donor and the abolishment of donor anonymity. Her frustrations are painfully similar to adoptees’ struggles to change closed records laws. “We’re up against a 3 billion dollar industry. They can afford to have lobbyists in D.C. blocking every effort to regulate their practices.” Sound familiar?
Advocating for the Offspring
So why have I chosen to write about donor conception for a site dedicated to adoption? Because when you zoom out and examine the whole picture, they’re essentially the same industry. They have different means to a common end, and way too often people fool themselves into thinking the end justifies the means. Both exhibit a common problem: We are doing what might be convenient for the adults in the situation with little regard for the person who will bear the brunt of the consequences.
My plea to society in both cases is: If we aren’t putting our children first, where are our priorities? Justice for ALL is thought to be a value in this country. We are stripping children of their basic human right to know where they came from and downplaying this injustice by reminding them how lucky they are to be alive. This is not acceptable, and should never have been tolerated in the first place.
Infant adoptions and donor-assisted conceptions are multi-billion dollar industries which put the paying customer first, and often put the child’s needs dead last. There is a dire need for parent education, strict regulation, and the protection of the child’s rights under the law.
Learn more about the Donor Sibling Registry.
Watch full episodes of Generation Cryo.
About the author
Kristi was adopted through the closed domestic system in
Pennsylvania. Formerly an associate producer for cable TV’s Forensic Files, she has since become an independent writer and advocate for open records. She has served as a board member for Adoption Forum of Philadelphia and recently co-founded C.A.R.E.S., a support forum for those conceived by rape. www.cares-group.org