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Ellen Goodman: Mary Cheney and the DNA-Dad Issue

Posted on Dec 20, 2006

By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON—By now, Mary Cheney must have inspired an entirely new chapter in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Expect your pregnancy to provoke a national controversy.

It’s been years since the Vice President’s Openly Gay Daughter first created a stir on the right for her sexual preference and a stir on the left for her political preference. Now her “bump,” as all celebrity pregnancies are described, is fodder for the sort of uncontrolled food fight she’ll find all too familiar in another year or so.

Her opponents criticize her as a single mommy and one of two mommies. Her pregnancy has been labeled “unconscionable,” “selfish” and “cruel.” She and partner Heather Poe have been especially lambasted for bringing a child into the world “without a father.” As Robert Knight of the Media Research Center moaned, “I think it’s tragic that a child has been conceived with the express purpose of denying it a father.”

It should be noted that 37 percent of all American children are now born to unmarried mothers. More to the point, Mary’s baby does have a father, at least a genetic father. But have you noticed how little attention or criticism has been directed at the DNA dad?

There are, in essence, two kinds of fathers: known and unknown. The continuum of unknown fathers runs the gamut from the casualness of a one-night stand to the deliberateness of a sperm bank.


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I am willing to guess that Mary and Heather chose a sperm bank as their matchmaker since these banks offer their customers—and I do mean customers—a screened set of genes from a diverse portfolio of men. The sperm donors range in height and ethnicity, athletic prowess and SAT scores. Some donors even provide an essay, sort of like a college admissions application.

It’s fair to say that the sperm banks overtly promote the importance of the male gene in the creation of a child. And covertly promote the unimportance of the male presence in the raising of a child.

In the beginning, artificial insemination was a treatment for married couples in which the husband was infertile. Sperm donors, or sperm vendors as bioethicist George Annas calls the men who sell their genetic material, were often medical students who treated this as casually as a blood donation. The world and the child were expected to regard the husband as the biological father.

Today about 30,000 babies a year are born from sperm donors. The customers are now likely to be single women who have given up looking for Mr. Right in favor of Donor Right, and lesbians. But the donors are pretty much the same.

“Most of them are young guys trying to make some money and not thinking about the consequences,” says David Plotz, author of “The Genius Factory,” a book about a famous sperm bank. “They make a donation, it’s kept in quarantine, released to someone they don’t know and then a child is created with whom they have no connection.”

This makes a perfect market solution: female customers who want children and male manufacturers ready to sell their genetic material without strings or custody suits attached. But sooner or later, the “consequences” grow up and may have a very different opinion.

One person’s DNA is another person’s “dad.” Some children of sperm donors are beginning to search for their biological fathers the way adopted children do. They’re using information from sperm bank profiles, from DNA collection sites and donor sibling registries.

There is a growing belief that a child’s right to know trumps the parents’ right to keep a secret. Britain and the Netherlands have banned anonymous donors. In America, there are now two-tracked sperm banks—one for men who want to be anonymous, one for men willing to be contacted when the children become adults.

We can’t ban sperm donation any more than we can ban the fertile one-night stand. We have no reason to keep single women, gay or straight, from the new technology. They can always go back to basics—or turkey basters.

But children, adopted or created, should have the right to find their biological parents, at least when they grow up. It’s time to end anonymity. If this gives men second thoughts about creating a child, well, we want men to have second—and third—thoughts. If it puts a damper on the genetic father market, who said that families were markets?

American society is in the midst of a great cultural change. Increasingly, we expect men to be involved fathers. We want fatherhood to be a commitment and not a donation. Let’s stop the food fight over two mommies long enough to ask the question their child may ponder. Little Cheney-Poe: “Who’s Your Daddy?”
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)


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By bran, December 26, 2006 at 12:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ms. Goodman, your argument is fundamentally ridiculous. A guy enters into a basic social contract when he blows his load into a cup and sells it to a sperm bank. It goes something like this: “You’re going to beat 99% or more of your raw genetic material throughout your lifetime into a wad of kleenex, so rather than waste it, why don’t you give some to us so we can give it to people who really want it and see if it works for them. We’ll give you $50 and agree that you’ve chosen to give us sperm, that the sperm may or may not yield a child, and that whatever happens you’re just a faceless donor.” A woman - whatever her status - utilizing a sperm bank, agrees to the terms of that contract as well - she pays good money for the seed and agrees that the biodad is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent - and she (and, if applicable, her partner) have a responsibility to their child to ensure that he or she grows up knowing that he/she was wanted intensely, that mommy went through a difficult and expensive process in addition to pregnancy to make that happen, and that as a result he/she is very loved, and that “dad”, whoever he was, is ultimately unimportant to his/her quality of life.

By demanding that donors - and they are donors, not dads - pony up some sort of responsibility, you open the door to huge ethical and legal considerations. Consider: Test-tube Joey discovers that mom used Bill Gates’s spunk to make him. In a society where Test-tube Joey has the right to be acknowledged by Mr. Gates as his offspring, we’re just steps away from little Joey, and even his mommy, suing the pants off Mr. Gates for “support.” Who wins here? And if the argument can be made that raw human material like sperm, so abundant that most of us guys are just throwing it away, can create an ethical/legal link back to a person, could that argument in the future be extended to other matters, like organ donations and blood?

Raising kids is about loving them. Please do your homework before you fashion such an argument again - check the number of sperm bank kiddies who are actively seeking their spunk donors against the number of kids who could care less - who are happy to have been wanted, and loved, and are greatful that their mothers had an alternate means of conception that allowed for their existence in the first place - and then make your demand with some data to back your claim. Especially one so damaging as yours: this system is helping 30,000 kids a year be born into families that really, really want them - why would you suggest discouraging that process by “giv[ing] men second thoughts about creating a child?”

And one more thing: Using Mary Cheney’s high-profile pregnancy as a jumping point for your argument - and suggesting, again baselessly, that she used a sperm bank to get the job done, is convenient and lazy. Again: do a little more research the next time you want to make a point.

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By God of Biscuits, December 24, 2006 at 11:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ms. Goodman:

Way to draw out some antique notion of sexuality to set up an argument that otherwise wouldn’t work.

You’re calling on men to have second and third thoughts.  You’re calling on people to think about what they’re doing but then there’s you, with a national soapbox, being irresponsible and terribly fast and loose with peoples’ feelings.

What do you call it when you’re being callous in the service of calling people shallow?  Or are you being shallow in the service of calling people callous?

Either way, there’s a hypocrisy that sours your entire “argument”.

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By Barry Kain, December 24, 2006 at 5:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

And in all of this controversy, not one mention of how many of Mary Cheney’s left-over (and presumably ALIVE) fertilized eggs were flushed down the drain after the clinic was done with their work; eggs that may have otherwise provided stem cells for cures. Or was it a turkey baster job?

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By Bobosan, December 23, 2006 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Well, as a known donor, with a beautiful 2 1/2 year old daughter who is being raised by two loving and supportive mothers, I truly am having a hard time understanding the debate over the Mary and Heather’s choice.  This year I have been slowly telling more and more people about my daughter because I am not ashamed AND I do get to spend time w/ her, even though I am 500 miles away.  In fact, in a few hours I’m leavnig to spend Christmas with her and her mommies. This summer the mommies, myself and our daughter spent 10 days in Tuscany.  So with Mary and Heather coming forward I’ve been letting my story unfold more.
One of the two mothers is my oldest/dearest friend of 25 years.  The two of them asked me 7 years ago and about 4 years ago I started to process of 15 visits (because they would like 2 children).  The screening is very thorough and the detailed questions are appropriate.  Again, the three of us have known each other and therefore are in a different situation than those who are left “unknown”. My little girl knows who I am and we have books to help explain.  To me, it should not matter because she has TWO LOVING parents and in this case also gets a LOVING donor daddy!
I hope people just open their minds a little more and realize all children being raised by a loving family or single parent will do just fine as long as there is LOVE!

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By sarah alderdice, December 23, 2006 at 7:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a pregnancy which epitomizes the arrogance of the oligarchy which rules us: My genes are divine and your family must be sacrificed to sustain them.
And on the way to sustaining my genes, I can toy with you, laugh at you, sneer at you, encourage my minions to disparage and humiliate you all to my greater amusement.
Only Mel Gibson could find this edifying.

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By Oregoncharles, December 22, 2006 at 11:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There’s a hilarious movie about this:  it’s called “Leon the Pig Farmer.”  Hunt for it - it was a while ago. 

Sperm are cheap, eggs are expensive, babies are a lot more so.  We’re talking basic biology here:  sperm “donation” models basic male and female reproductive strategies very closely.  Frankly, I think Goodman is swimming up the rapids here - and we’re not salmon.

As she notes, women accomplish the same thing in simpler ways all the time.  I’ve met a few of the results.  Not much the guy can do about it, unless he chooses to be celibate short of marriage, or society, either, unless we’re going to punish extra-marital sex.  Banning anonymous donors seems thoroughly pointless to me.  They’re not hard to find.

This, even though she has a case:  my son had a bone marrow transplant.  When you’re facing that, you track down every relative you can find, and it would be nice to know who your daddy was. From the father’s point of view, it would also be nice to know how that baby turned out.  But not everybody does, and some of those who do don’t really.  This is one case where women have the power and the last word, and earn it the hard way.

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By Dr. knowitall, PhD, PhD, December 22, 2006 at 8:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

re: 43205   You could be right about that.  I wonder what it’s like, though, not being able to be seen outside your own little support group for fear you might be confronted.  Now, the kid, who is not quilty by association, may have to live down his ancestors’ pigheadedness.  I hope people give him/her a chance to prove he/she isn’t like they are, if in fact he/she dodges that gene or enviornmental variable.

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By Quy Tran, December 21, 2006 at 8:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

John Doe is John Doe !

Cheney’s family had enough fishy smellings.

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By HeadlessHessian, December 21, 2006 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gotta love the irony!


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By anonymous, December 21, 2006 at 11:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dr. Knowitall:

With the fortune Cheney’s amassed, none of his decendents will have to suffer any consequences of his actions unless he cuts them off.  And, I’m betting Mary got his permission first.

I still contend Babs Bush donated the sperm.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, Ph.D, December 21, 2006 at 9:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

More to the point, any mother, with or without the help of a panting donor, should have her sanity questioned for making the selfish decision to bring a child into this miserable, fucking world Mary’s father helped to create.  Where the hell is her head?  Bush and Cheney have squandered away America’s credibility as a World Democracy along with our financial/ecnomic future.  Mary, of all women, should have known better. It’s gotta be an immaculate conception. Egad, Zounds, it’s the Second Coming!!!!!!

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By Eleanore Kjellberg, December 21, 2006 at 8:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Today about 30,000 babies a year are born from sperm donors. The customers are now likely to be single women who have given up looking for Mr. Right in favor of Donor Right, and lesbians. But the donors are pretty much the same.”

It might be preferable for all children to know their biological parents—-but the bigger issue, is whether it is necessary for wealthy heterosexuals or homosexuals to create “designer” offspring, when this planet is critically overpopulated and faces an ecological crisis.  There are children already born, and warehoused in orphanages with futures that are less than bleak.  So if extraordinary costly methods offer the only alternative to child birth—-adoption should be considered.

Yes, there is no doubt that “vanitas” becomes a variable in what choices we make; it so much more sweeter to look at a child and see a bit of yourself—-but if that is not a simple biological possibility—-would it not be better to be a parent to a child that already exists, being obsessed with parenthood is not only about spreading ones genetic pool, but is really about nurturing a child, so that one day they become an independent caring human being.

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