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December 9, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Kathleen LaBounty doesn’t know where her son got his dark blue eyes.
When she was 8 years old, LaBounty’s mother told her she was conceived by sperm donation. Not until she was a teen did she try to find out who her biological father is. She contacted the clinic but was told the files had been destroyed, so she began sending out letters to possible fathers. Six hundred letters later, the 28-year-old LaBounty still has not found him.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand because they see that we’re loved and we’re wanted, and what else could possibly be missing?” LaBounty says. “I think it’s very natural to wonder where you came from, your heritage, how are you similar to the person who helped create you.”
Now a research counselor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, LaBounty is a proud mother of an 8-month-old son, with a daughter on the way. Aside from doing research at the university, she has written extensively about her search on her blog Child of a Stranger. Through her blog, she has fought for the end of anonymous donations in the U.S. Not knowing her biological father has left LaBounty with many questions and no answers. On a practical level, she has no idea if she has a family history of cancer or heart disease. But there are personal, complicated reasons as well.
“I can see bits and pieces of my mom, but there’s so much of my face that I don’t recognize, like a stranger, and you want to know the other half of your face,” LaBounty says.
LaBounty and other kids resulting from sperm and egg donations have no easy answers. Just as many adopted children wonder about their biological parents, donor kids have questions beyond where their blue eyes come from.
Her attention was drawn to Missouri in 2009. State Representative Cynthia Davis (R-19) sought her advice on a bill that would give donor children the opportunity to find their biological parents. The controversial House Bill 355 would have ended anonymous donations, but it failed to come to a vote before the 2009 session was over. Alhough the bill is currently not scheduled for a hearing, it also would have allowed children at the age of 21 access to their genetic donors.
LaBounty says the current system’s priority is to protect the adults involved in the process, and the needs and well-being of the child seem to be at the bottom of the list.
Not everyone is happy with Davis’ bill. Marna Gatlin is the CEO and founder of Parents Via Egg Donation, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Ore. It offers support and education to couples, families and parents who are choosing an egg donor. Gatlin started the organization after her own experience of conceiving a son with egg donation. She worries that making it mandatory to remove the donors’ anonymity could shrink the number of donations. However, Gatlin wishes she had been given the option to meet her egg donor.
“I’d just like to hug her and thank her because she has just given me an extraordinary gift,” Gatlin says.
The end of anonymity is not what bothered Gatlin most about Davis’ 2009 bill. It was the language. According to the bill, the donor parent would be required to be listed on the birth certificate alongside the names of the mother and father. Gatlin worries about placing such strong emphasis on the donor.
“I think folks who have not gone through this experience don’t understand how it feels for us to hear the fact that the baby we’ve carried and brought into the world is going to have somebody else as a parent,” Gatlin says.
She admits she gets irritated by the use of the term “donor mother” alone. Although her 10-year-old son knows how he was conceived, Gatlin wants him to know that parenthood goes beyond genetics — a real parent cares for and nurtures a child.
LaBounty agrees. The man who raised her will always be her dad, but she adds that her biological father will always be more than just a donor to her. Unlike Gatlin, she supports the birth certificate provision because it prevents parents from misleading their children about their origins. LaBounty wants to prevent other donor kids from experiencing the pain of being unable to find their biological parents.
“I also just felt a lot of loss,” LaBounty says. “I felt (that)not just my biological father but the other half of my family had died. I really went through a grieving period.”
Gatlin thinks many parts of the system need to be changed, but she finds many state bills that are similar to Davis’ come from legislators who lack education about the process.
“This isn’t Star Trek,” Gatlin says. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a way for a woman to be able to carry a pregnancy and to be able to have her partner’s child, to have a baby you made out of love just as you would naturally, except that we have to use somebody else’s genetics.”