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February 12th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
When a major national magazine asks the question “Do Mothers Matter,” it’s bound to be provocative.  Indeed, my guess is that was the purpose of entitling the article that way; it’s clearly a backhanded reference to the Maureen Dowd type of commentator that makes a living by snark and little else.  But unlike Dowd, Elizabeth Marquardt actually has something to say and some facts with which to back up her argument.  Here’s her article (The Atlantic, 2/10/12).

Unfortunately, it takes her a while to get to the point and her piece hits several bumps along the way.  Her question, “do mothers matter?” arises from the phenomenon of assisted reproductive therapies like surrogacy and egg donation.  One obvious fact that Marquardt never gets around to mentioning outright is that, just because a child is conceived via egg donation and gestated by a surrogate doesn’t mean he/she doesn’t have a mother.  It only means that the mother the child sees every day couldn’t conceive and/or carry a child herself.

So what Marquardt is actually worried about are men who become “single fathers by choice.”  That is, they find an egg donor and a surrogate, and, when the child is born take it into their own care as per their agreement with the surrogate.  They do, in other words, what “single mothers by choice” have been doing for decades now – choosing to raise a child without a partner.

Of course, some of them do have partners.  For example, some gay couples have gone the surrogate route in order to become parents.  Why they don’t just adopt, I’ve never been able to figure out.  If adoption in the U.S. is difficult for gay men, foreign adoptions are not.

And Marquardt’s take on gay men becoming parents via surrogacy has the uncomfortable ring of anti-gay bias. 

Picking an egg donor and a surrogate, gay couples from the obscure to the wildly famous — examples include Elton John and David Furnish, or Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka — can do this too. Generally moneyed and armed with a team of baby nurses, nannies, and house cleaners, most of these fathers probably do fine in providing material comfort, opportunity, and a loving home for the children.

Reading that, I found myself wondering if Marquardt believes that (a) all gay men are wealthy or (b) they don’t actually parent the children, but just turn them over to their “team of baby nurses, nannies, and house cleaners.”  If Marquardt doesn’t know any gay fathers, maybe she should take the trouble to meet some.  I can introduce her to a few who strike me as exemplary parents.

Another thing Marquardt fails to mention is how many children, conceived by egg donation and carried by a surrogate actually end up without mothers.  Of course the biological mother isn’t part of the child’s life, but I’d wager that far more often than not the day-to-day mother is present and accounted for in the child’s life, very much like an adoptive mother would be.  So Marquardt wants us to believe there’s a major problem, but is there?  Here’s her one and only stab at making the case: 

Today we are witnessing an equal opportunity run on deliberately conceiving motherless children.

A “run?”  Really?  Are there no statistics on the incidence of motherless children via single or gay men using a surrogate?  If there are, why didn’t Marquardt let us know what they are?  If there aren’t, why does she believe this is a significant phenomenon?

In short, there are a lot of problems with Marquardt’s article that need to be sorted out.  Still, eventually, she gets to some points worth making.  Marquardt has joined the crowd of researchers, historians and people of good will and common sense who understand that fatherless children generally do worse in life than do those who grow up in intact families.  And she suspects that the same would hold true of motherless children as well.  My guess is she’s right.

We are now learning more than ever before about the experience of an arguably similar class of children, those deliberately denied their biological fathers via sperm donation. In studies such as “My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation,” which I co-investigated with University of Texas sociology professor Norval Glenn and donor-conceived adult Karen Clark; or in stories posted at the popular AnonymousUs.org website; or found in a newly-released documentary, Anonymous Father’s Day, we are hearing that being deliberately denied your father can be both painful and bewildering, especially in a society that says your loss should not matter.

Based on a representative sample, in “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” we reported that most sperm donor-conceived persons strongly object to anonymous donation of sperm. Nearly half feel troubled by the role of money in their conception. Most want to know about their biological father’s family, and they wonder if that family would want to know about them. Compared to their peers raised by biological parents, sperm donor-conceived persons are more likely to struggle with delinquency, addiction, and depression.

Clearly, at least some of these kids are not really all right. It seems entirely plausible that at least some conceived never to know their mothers might share the feelings of the sample in our study. For decades we have debated whether fathers matter. Must we now debate whether mothers matter, too?

I certainly hope not.  Rather, what we should do in the case of motherless children is the same as what we should in that of children without fathers.  We should point out at every opportunity that children need both parents, preferably both biological parents, in order to optimize their well-being.  That’s what the science has taught us beyond question.  It’s the failure of public institutions - most notably courts - to grasp that most basic of concepts that continues to haunt the days of millions of children and to make American society far less than it can be.

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