Many cultural commentators and media talking heads have labelled the 21stcentury the “surveillance age,” citing the increasingly omnipresent eye of the state and the slowly shrinking segment of our daily lives that remains unrecorded by the faceless automatons of government bureaucracy. The unsurprising revelations of former NSA employee Edward Snowden that the American government is actually recording more information than we knew previously has prompted countless comparisons to the dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984. A growing discussion that most of our culture is attempting to ignore, however, highlights clearly that the cable news prophets are comparing our society to the wrong dystopia: As a new documentary entitled Anonymous Father’s Day revealingly illustrates, we have now crossed the Rubicon into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Anonymous Father’s Day begins with a moving testimony from a woman describing how she felt when she discovered that she was conceived through a sperm donor—and that she had no idea who her actual father really was. She quickly discovered that she was not alone, as communities of “donor conceived persons” number in the hundreds of thousands and thirty to sixty thousand new human beings are conceived using donor sperm per year, a now 3.3 billion dollar industry. It is a global issue with very few regulations, and almost impossible to track. In their desperate quest for children, however, it seems that many people may have forgotten the impact on children who now realize that one-half of their family tree is question mark.
As one interviewee in the film put it, adopted children are children who often came about by accident, and were given up by their biological mother. Donor-conceived persons are intentionally created using a reproductive technology that many are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with. “My daddy’s name is donor,” reads one slogan. “I am the child of a stranger,” reads another.
“Nobody stops to think,” muses the documentarian Barry Stevens, himself conceived using a sperm donor, “that the babies grow up.”
Many of them have grown up, and they are demanding answers. They want to know what their sperm donor’s family is like, how many half-siblings they have, and how people conceived in this fashion are to deal with what they call “genealogical bewilderment.”
One of the most fascinating interviews in the documentary is that of Barry Stevens, writer and director of the film Bio-Dad, a documentary that also examines the phenomenon of conception through sperm donation. Imagine, he asks us, that a doctor arrives in the maternity ward to speak to a new mother who wants her baby from the nursery. Don’t worry, he assures her, I’ll bring you a healthy baby. But, the mother insists, I want mybaby. Nonsense, the doctor replies, any healthy, happy baby will do, and it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s your biological child.
Is it so hard to understand, Barry Stevens asks, that if biology matters in this situation, it also matters to donor conceived persons who just want to know the basic facts surrounding their origin? “Saying kinship doesn’t matter leads to a lot of pain,” he points out.
And so it does. Interviewee after interviewee describes an inexplicable sense of loss, and recount whole childhoods spent creating memories and imaginary fathers. “I look in the mirror,” one said, “and I don’t know who I look like.”
Surprisingly, there had been quite a public backlash targeted at those donor conceived persons choosing to tell their stories. From those struggling to conceive children to radical gay rights activists who see reproductive technologies as a potential path to parenthood, those advocating the regulation of what they call “an industry to design, produce, and sell babies” are often told to keep their mouths shut. In a culture that encourages people to share their personal experiences, donor conceived persons are “supposed to be simply grateful that they exist.” This is in spite of the fact that the murky origins of donor-conceived persons are leading to problems that border on the bizarre—including what one called “accidental incest,” in which there is increasingly a real possibility (and real examples) of biological half-brothers and half-sisters getting married.
As new reproductive technologies increasingly unmoor child-bearing from the harbor of the family, society has to come to terms with the fact that these unprecedented changes hold real-world consequences for real people. This is not just about the ethics surrounding reproductive technologies and scientists manipulating the beginning of new human lives. It is also about young men and women staring in the mirror and wondering whose eyes and hair and smile they have, and whether or not the strangers they pass on their way to work are actually their half-siblings, cousins, relatives.
At the end of the day, Anonymous Father’s Day is about family and its centrality and importance. It may be beginning a conversation nobody wants to have, but it is certainly a conversation that needs to happen.