If you judged by the headlines and the ballot boxes, you'd think the only interesting thing about marriage is whether Ellen DeGeneres can marry Portia de Rossi. But the central issue in the gay marriage controversy -- how we should connect sex, babies, and marriage, and when we can or should separate them -- plays out in almost every American life, including the lives of the heterosexual majority.
Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency highlighted concerns over fatherhood. A man whose first autobiography dealt extensively with his troubled relationship with his divorced father was elected president, and t-shirts bearing photos of the President-elect with his wife and children sold out at sidewalk stands in neighborhoods where husbands are hard to find.
Nisa Muhammad, the founder of Black Marriage Day and creator of a marriage education curriculum for black couples, noted that many people she worked with didn't see the need to get married: "Our first session is called 'Why marriage?' So that when they get the skills they'll value having the skills."
She blamed "an absence of cultural cues that guide most young people, but especially black young people, toward marriage. There's the Beyonce song 'Put a Ring on It' but [songs like that are] very few and far apart." The cultural shifts go beyond the music charts: "Some people grow up never going to a wedding," Muhammad pointed out. "There used to be weddings all the time in the summertime -- we used to be junior bridesmaids, grow up being flower girls."
Muhammad often finds herself working with low-income families, whose concerns could not seem further away from the lives of couples and singles who pay startling sums for surrogate mothers or egg donors. The often chaotic lives of poor families seem remote from the intensely planned, often lawyer-vetted arrangements of families who use sperm donors or other forms of third-party reproduction.
But many of the issues of father-longing and changeable family constellations are similar -- though not the same -- from the penthouses to the projects. As the first wave of donor-conceived children come of age, and begin to speak plainly about their experiences, they often inadvertently articulate concerns at the heart of the marriage movement: a child's need for her father, and for a unified family.
Elizabeth Marquardt first became interested in donor conception after her first book was published, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. Herself a child of divorce, she studied the emotional, ethical, and spiritual difficulties faced by children growing up in a divided family.
And she began to notice similarities to the lives of children of divorce in the "very poignant stories" told by many donor-conceived children: "Father loss is father loss whatever guise it comes in," she says. Some of the subjects in her forthcoming study, My Daddy's Name Is Donor, said that "to have been conceived by an anonymous sperm donor with pretty much no hope of being able to find out who it is feels like the death of their father."
Donor-conceived children can have many unknown half-siblings; they lack information about their biological parents' medical histories; and they lack a defined relationship to the donor parent. Marquardt says that even laws allowing children to learn their donor parent's identity at age 18 don't address major issues: "How do you start a relationship [with the donor parent]? Who are you to each other? If you ask him for $20, is it all over? If he has hundreds of children, will he get kind of tired of this? If he gets sick, do you have an obligation to care for him?" And, overarching these day-to-day questions: "How many people are we going to bless as parent figures in children's lives?"
Donor conception is primarily used by heterosexuals, and yet it is also directly tied in to gay marriage. As Marquardt notes, "With the right to marry comes the right to form a family," and for a gay couple, donor conception is the only way to form a family in which at least one partner has a biological tie to the child. Therefore, she fears that "we stand on the brink of not being able to have that debate [about problems with donor conception] because to oppose donor conception is to be anti-gay."
Gay couples are much more likely than straight couples to use "known donors," and to make the donor a part of the child's life. But these children must negotiate at least two different families. "There's no obligation for their own parents to make one family the way marriage requires," Marquardt notes.
And the couples who enlist donors face their own identity issues. Marquardt describes distancing ways of framing the relationship, calling a sperm donor "the Y guy" or the "uncle," as "cutesy ways of minimizing the fact that he might have real importance to the child. The moms tend to want to keep the known donor at arm's length."
She points out, "The reason why people…want donor offspring is that they want a biological connection to their child." By the same token, that child will likely feel a connection to the biological parent.
Marquardt says that the donor offspring in her study "as a group, broadly embraced the right of adults to access these technologies, and at the same time broadly embrace the right of children to know absolutely everything. They're not saying, 'ban this.'" For her own part, Marquardt would ban anonymous donation, "and if a friend [asked me for advice on donor conception] I'd encourage her not to do it."
Our new family forms derive from our belief that we can separate sex, marriage, procreation, and childrearing, not only out of tragic necessity but as positive, equally-valid alternatives. Donor-conceived children show the blessings that can come from this separation -- but also its limits. It is simply not true that children only want two people to love and care for them. They also often long for their biological parents, the man and woman whose physical union brought them into the world.
That longing, and the need it reflects, is one of the core reasons for renewing our marriage culture.