This past week has seen the outrage generated by parents of donor and invitro-fertilization children following a now-infamous Panorama magazine interview conducted with the fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana, wherein Domenico Dolce proclaimed, “You are born to a mother and a father — or at least that’s how it should be. I call children of chemistry, synthetic children.” Immediately, Elton John advocated a boycott of the designers’ products in retaliation for the perceived offense against his two sons, who were conceived via an egg donor and surrogate mother.
Speaking as two donor-conceived young women—alive because of reproductive technologies—we felt an urgent need to respond…in support of Dolce and Gabbana.
John’s children were commissioned in partnership with his spouse, David Furnish, and it is not yet public information which man is the biological father, or if they both are and the children are not fully genetically related. The hashtags #BoycottDolceGabbana as well as #BoycottEltonJohn are trending on Twitter, with a multitude of parents defending IVF and their “beautiful children.” Many users are posting pictures of infants with captions such as:
It is important to note, however, that infants, toddlers, and all of these “miracle” beings are too young to protest their own objectification. We however, are now of age and in a position to speak for ourselves. “Synthetic” indeed is a harsh and inaccurate description of us offspring born by third-party reproduction. Dolce’s word choice was a mistake. But there is much underlying truth in what he said: “life [does] have a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.” Emphasis ours.
Those of us conceived non-traditionally are full human beings with equal capacity in every regard—no one need question our humanity. It is not our individual, case-by-case worth as humans that is debatable; rather, it is how we value human beings in general that warrants discussion. Has anyone asked John for how much he purchased his kids? How much money he and Furnish paid the boy’s genetic and birth mother for their absence and invisibility?
I (Alana) remember when I was in school and I told my then-best friend the truth about my conception. When our friendship frayed, as tween friendships do, she released my secret as gossip—invisible, quiet, and as poisonous as carbon monoxide fumes—and I became the “test-tube girl.” The label was humiliating.
Later, in a college English class we studied “Brave New World,” and it immediately became one of my favorite works of fiction, up there with “Gattaca.” What we were essentially studying was what it means to be human. My classroom was located in Cupertino, California, and even in my liberal environment the teacher and students took heed at Huxley’s warning against manufactured people and the “outdated” nature of mothers. The class was angry at the possibility of such a world—they felt that their humanity and most important relationships (like the one with their mothers and fathers) were being threatened. The din got to a point where I had to raise my hand and speak up. I was 17 years old. I barely understood myself, let alone the world, and I said simply and defensively, “I was conceived with reproductive technologies.”
The class was silent for a very long time. Finally, a boy sitting next to me offered solemnly, “Well, she seems like a perfectly fine human being—maybe we shouldn’t be so hysteric.”
I am indeed a human being. My liver, heart, hair, and enzymes all work the same. I’ve discovered it is my psychology that is different and not-quite-right, due to my conception. It’s not a matter for doctors to fix; it’s a spiritual problem. My father accepted money, and promised to have nothing to do with me. My mother was wonderful and I have always loved her deeply, as she has loved me. But my journey is a battle against the void left by my father’s absence, and a particular disability in understanding the difference between sacred and commercial, exploitation and cooperation. Those torments for me far outweigh any social stigma or momentarily painful gossip I’ve endured from ignorant people.
For children whose genetic or birth mother’s absence has been commissioned, they will ask, “Where is my mother?” Like this young author at The Anonymous Us Project:
I’m 14 and live with my father. He always told me that my mom died when I was very young. Recently I was going through some files and found out that I was actually born by a person who donated their egg and I was born through a surrogate mother in Virginia. This led me to believe that my father was never married. I’m also very sure my dad was never married because I discovered that he is gay. Why would my dad keep this all from me?
Implicitly stated in this post is that the author’s father considered a dead mother to be better, healthier than an egg donor or surrogate mother.
And I (Hattie) have undergone a strikingly similar experience; my mother informed me of my true parentage when I was 14, and it was, as they say, irrevocable. My mother’s then-husband had waited until they divorced to permit her to tell me, and the revelation of his not being my biological father clarified an overwhelming amount of issues between us. For a multitude of reasons—his background, my personality and beliefs, our lack of biological connection—the cards were stacked against our having a conventional, loving father-daughter relationship. And we didn’t.
One of the greatest tragedies of donor conception is the loss of belonging: to family, to a culture. Essentially, one becomes malleable like an infant. I crave a home. I see myself as I travel in many directions—doing anything in order to find one.
Through the storytelling of other donor-conceived individuals, and scientific research pertaining to third-party reproduction and genetics, I have discovered that my situation is by no means unique, and I now understand the scientific explanations as to why my social father and I—up to a certain point—were unable to bond. It is natural for me to desire my father, for evolution has blessed those that secure such a bond with better survival rates.
The lack of my biological father’s presence is a devastating reality, a burden I will likely bare my entire existence. And now, knowing the truth of my conception, when I remember my past I remember everything that was absent from it.
Team Elton, and the media that surround them, seem to think that this discussion is about gay parents. Team Dolce and Gabbana are instead trying to draw attention to missing parents. And to what should be the horror of millions, Team Elton is literally promoting the obliteration of mothers—not through vilification, but by pretending they don’t even exist.
Dolce and Gabbana, on the other hand, have recently unveiled two campaigns celebrating women and motherhood. And while this emphasis is unprecedented in the world of fashion, it seems a most rational tribute; these men spend hours designing garments made specifically to compliment women’s bodies; their hands—measuring and configuring—are constantly in proximity to a female figure. While fitting bustiers to real women’s bodies the last 30 years, perhaps Stefano or Domenico once considered to themselves, “Hmm, I wonder what these breast things are for?”
“I’m Sicilian and I grew up in a traditional family, made up of a mother, a father and children. I am very well aware that there are other types of families and they are as legitimate as the one I’ve known,” says Dolce, attempting consolation amid the uproar against he and his business partner. Currently, the family dynamic that has proved the healthiest and most successful has been the traditional one, and that of Dolce’s experience: A mother, a father, and ensuing offspring from the sexual and social union of the two sexually complimentary parents.
In the study “My Daddy’s Name Is Donor,” it was found that, “Regarding troubling outcomes, even with controls, the offspring of lesbian couples who used a sperm donor to conceive appear more than twice as likely as those raised by their biological parents to report struggling with substance abuse,” an alarming result displaying the reality of being raised without both genetic parents.
Some suggest that spending more money on making children means that they are more loved. Our children are definitively wanted, they say.
“The baby doesn’t care anything about the money,” says marriage and family therapist Nancy Verrier, regarding the issues surrounding surrogacy. “That’s not what hurts the baby. The baby is hurt by the separation, by the loss of that mother that it knows.” This ever-present realization of loss remains with both mother and child throughout their lives. Nature has ensured that mothers and children attach to one another, as it is a trait necessary to our survival; without motivation to love or instinctively care for her child, why would a mother protect her children from potential danger? She wouldn’t, and that would have heralded the end of our species. With this biological connection so immediate and meaningful, why doesn’t society view maintenance of that connection as more imperative?
Dolce and Gabbana are realists whose daily work consumes their time with raw natural materials. They work hard to understand the practical applications and limitations of tangible things—silks, leathers, jewels, studs. As masters of their art, they know what is possible, and what is foolish to attempt. They owe their success to their understanding, appreciation, and honoring of the human body.
Growing up donor-conceived, it has been a great struggle to comply with the commandment “Honor thy mother and thy father,” because in order to obey the desires of one parent we must agree to the obliteration of the other. We plead, we beg: let us honor both our mothers and fathers as essential and irreplaceable.
Thank you, Domenico and Stefano, for your bravery.