Assisted Cordray Article

Reproductive Technologies: Emotional Adoption

by Bill Cordray

The International Conference of the AAC in Nashville was an extraordinary milestone for me. Like many first-time attendees, I found kinship with a group of people who gave me support and understanding. Although Annette Baran and Kris Probasco invited me to join them on a panel, I came to this conference with a fear of possible rejection. Other adoptees attending their first conference alone may have felt uneasy but, at least, they knew that seasoned members would have accepted them as part of the adoption triad. I was not even sure people would accept me as a self-proclaimed adoptee. I do not fit the typical definition of an adoptee. My parents did not legally adopt me. My mother did not surrender me to another family. No attorney finalized my adoption. No court sealed my records. In fact, there may have been no records of my adoption in the first place.

Even so, I have long felt that I was "emotionally adopted," in the words of Joyce MacGuire Pavao. I needed to come to Nashville, despite the risk of AAC rejection. I felt compelled to speak about my experiences. Like adoptees, I am a person who does not know my roots. I was a child who lived with secrets and lies. I was a teenager who grew up confused about identity. As an adult, I am angry because a powerful and arrogant institution denies any access to my genealogy. I came to Tennessee because I also wanted to make an appeal, on behalf of more than a million others like me, for AAC support in our battle to open our Pandora's box where we look for hope. Thanks to all of you who made me feel so welcome, so valid.

As a person conceived through donor insemination at the end of World War II, I have an additional question besides "who" I am. How do I describe what I am? There are no satisfactory labels to describe people like me. The medical profession had initially labeled us as "AID children," short for artificial insemination by donor. Then we became "DI children" to avoid confusion with the rising horror of the term "AIDS." Even later, we became "donor offspring," and finally "products of therapeutic gamete donation." The media have facetiously labeled us "test-tube babies," "kidsicles," or "spermees." All these labels have served to dehumanize us, to make our human condition even more abstract. We have become caricatures, if we are visible as people at all. These labels made us eternal children whose rights are more easily ignored. It has prevented many from seeing our plight as similar to adoptees. A more appropriate term would be "DI adoptee." That is how I choose to label myself, although DI parents strongly object.

From my point of view, however, my childhood experiences are more often than not coincidental with adoptees. When I first read Betty Jean Lifton's Lost and Found several years ago, I felt that much of her eloquence was relevant to DI adoptees. The significant difference for us is that we do not have the tremendous abandonment issues with our mothers. Our fathers, like birth fathers, did abandon us, with the secret sanction of the medical fertility gods. Although our existence is a contract arranged by the clinic, the donor, and our parents, it still feels like abandonment to us. In Nashville, it was encouraging to hear adoptees speak of their need to connect with birth fathers and to hear birth fathers speak out. Our goal as DI adoptees is the same: to be free to connect with our paternal heritage and genealogy.

The media began to examine donor insemination only in the eighties, after a century of absolute secrecy since the early beginnings of DI in 1884. They rarely had access to the children conceived through DI since the vast majority of us, perhaps one or two million, were never told the truth of our origins. Since the medical profession has firm control over the dissemination of information about DI, the media has accepted their assignment to focus on the sad plight of our infertile parents. These parents live with the same kinds of dilemmas as adoptive parents but do not identify with them, unfortunately. The media rarely look at the human face of the DI adoptee but concentrate on the doctors' view of the first nine months of our existence, using their terms. The common view of the DI adoptee is his microscopic status as a gamete, a blastocyst, an embryo, or our first ultrasonic snapshot as a fetus. I want to cry out like the Elephant Man, "I am a human being!" I am tired of describing myself in terms of my conception. I want to be seen in terms of my human condition, living with many of the psychosocial dynamics of other adoptees.

When I went to my first adoption support group over ten years ago, I finally met people who understood me. I no longer felt the complete isolation that overcame me when my mother disclosed the truth of my origins seventeen years ago, at a moment of extreme vulnerability for both of us. I did not know any other DI adoptee for the seven years before I went to my first group. The only friends who understood my confusion were adoptees, stepchildren or children of affairs. Others untouched by adoption dismissed the anguish I felt.

I was not told the truth of my conception until I was thirty-seven, a few days after the death of my younger DI brother, and the death of my father the year before. An expert on infertility, a gynecologist, convinced my parents that I did not need to know the truth, that I would never suspect my paternity, and that my genetic father must be forever anonymous. He presumed to give parenting advice without the slightest experience in psychology or sociology. His area of expertise was not in the mind or heart but somewhere below the belt. Consequently, my parents suffered through the pain of unresolved infertility and carried the needless burden of secrecy. They sincerely believed they were protecting me and my two other brothers conceived through DI. As children, we adopted selves that tried to fit within a family that seemed foreign to our natures. Since we all had different donors, we could not even look to each other to discover ourselves in the mirror of nature. We lived with the ghosts of the children that my parents should have had. Likewise, we lived with the ghosts of our unacknowledged donor fathers. We were baffling to our parents as they often were to us. Our parents, like adoptive parents, could not understand our lack of resonance with them, our strange interests, behaviors, and the talents they could not nurture. Without meaningful counseling, DI parents and adoptive parents struggle to raise children who are not genetically related.

After spending many lonely years trying to persuade the medical profession and DI parents about our need to access our records, we now realize we cannot do it alone. We have been on television and radio, talked with newspaper and magazine reporters, taken part in infertility support groups and medical conferences. We are trying to persuade people of the many connections between our plight and that of the adoptee. This is an argument our powerful opponents in the medical profession find convenient to deny. They presume to dismiss our ghost kingdom.

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine sets the voluntary guidelines that many unregulated clinics follow whenever it pleases them. They have created a committee of mental health professionals to investigate the psychosocial effects of DI and other assisted reproductive technologies on families. We need to encourage more dialogue with this group about the needs of DI adoptees so we can advocate for policy and legislative changes. The ASRM must end anonymity, create accessible donor registries, and encourage some form of open DI where donors can play a role in the life of DI children. We need to help them "get it," but there are too few speaking out for us. In the seventeen years since my mother's disclosure, I have made contact with only 70 other DI adoptees. Only a few of them have found the words to say what they feel in public. No one knows for sure how many of us are out there in the dark but some estimates place the numbers of DI conceptions around 60,000 per year. As infertile couples increasingly choose DI, donor eggs, donor embryos, and surrogacy over adoption, we will eventually become the primary group of adoptees. However, the veil of secrecy is darker than most people realize. There are no names on sealed original birth certificates located in courthouses, only coded numbers on records (if they still exist), scattered throughout countless doctors' offices and clinics.

Our situation is not unlike adoption in the forties. Few DI parents ever disclose the truth to their children, even into adulthood. Some of us do not find out until our middle age, usually after some family crisis such as death or divorce. None of us has yet been able to publish our stories, unlike adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. We are not subjects of extensive sociological studies. Reuben Pannor and Annette Baran are among a handful of writers to speak movingly about our lives in Lethal Secrets, but that is now out of print.

In short, we ask the AAC for your voice of support. We hope that you include us in your writings, your speeches, your legislative actions, and in your hearts.

Bill Cordray is an architect from Salt Lake City. He was conceived through sperm donation in Utah during World War II and was born three weeks before Hiroshima. Although he suspected his paternity for most of his life, he didn't learn the truth until he was 37. His search for his donor father has taken him into an ever-increasing set of labyrinths. Cordray's e-mail address is