How Do We Navigate Ethical Concerns About Having Kids as a Queer Couple?

Q:

So my partner and I are planning on getting married and starting a family soon — but I’m feeling super overwhelmed by the prospect of figuring out the ethics of having a child as a gay couple. I’ve been reading a lot from the adoptive community about the trauma of adoption and how it’s often unethical, but I’m hearing similar things from donor conceived people. I feel like I rarely see these concerns in queer family spaces, but any time a question is raised about gay parents in adoption and donor conception spaces, it is (understandably) not centered. How do I go about navigating this ethical minefield? Is it just not possible for my family to have kids in a way that wouldn’t profit from their trauma? I don’t want to disregard the voices of those communities — but I also have always wanted to be a parent. Help!

A:

I think it’s really admirable that you’re thinking about the ethics of having a kid. A lot of people don’t, and there is value in doing this kind of consideration before having kids. But I think there’s a difference between being aware and letting it keep you from doing something you have always wanted to do. If you want to have a kid, then you should do that and go in the direction that feels best to you and works with the resources you have at your disposal.

Admittedly, I conceived my son while I was in a relationship with a man, but my wife and I did talk at length about having a child together.

Adoption is a difficult avenue to navigate ethics-wise. It’s good that reunification where possible is becoming more normalized, because families do deserve a chance to make it work when they want to. But there are still so many kids in the system who need loving parents, and it’s admirable that people want to step up to the plate. I think there are a lot of things people who want to adopt need to think about heading into the process. It’s not solely about giving kids who don’t have a home a home. You need to be 100% sure you will be able to handle whatever gets thrown at you, and you need to consider all the complex questions all parents-to-be must undertake. If you have a child with complex medical issues or a child who is neurodivergent, are you going to do the work to make sure you fully understand their needs and will you do everything possible to make sure that they’re being given the best care you can manage? Ultimately though, these are questions any new parents should ask themselves, regardless of how they’re starting a family. With adoption, you’ll also need to consider if you’re prepared and able to navigate parenting a child who has experienced trauma and other hardships prior to their life with you.

There has been more of a conversation started by transracial adoptees about the challenges of transracial adoption in recent years that has been incredibly important. If you do go the route of transracial adoption, do you really understand what that means and looks like? As a parent, are you willing to do the homework about your child’s culture and heritage? I’ve read stories, but also heard from people I know who are transracial adoptees that so many adoptive parents don’t even try to do that. If you were to adopt a child of a different race, how would you educate yourself, but more importantly, how would you make sure you’re keeping them connected to that heritage? That is one of your biggest jobs as an adoptive parent. And if you’re not prepared for that, then that’s not the route you should go down. There are so many memoirs written by adoptees, and I encourage you to read them to get a better sense of some of these experiences from their end.

Now, things are complex for their own reasons when we’re talking about donor conception. If you want to have a biological child, this really is the only way to make that happen. I also did some research to see what the conversations around donor conception and ethics are, and much of it seems to be anecdotal. Some people may feel like it’s shady or unethical, but by and large, it’s an accepted way of conception, especially for same sex couples who can’t conceive any other way. One of the things I kept running into is how and when to tell your child they are donor conceived. If you’re worried about ethics, not disclosing this information, or waiting until your child is an adult is definitely going to lead to a lot more challenges than letting your child know earlier.

There are conversations happening about the ethics of sperm donation, mainly that there needs to be a limit on how many families can use one person’s sperm. Some sperm donors want to be found and some don’t, which can pose issues if a kid has questions later on, but that information should be given to the sperm bank, and you can choose a donor based on those stipulations. Different sperm banks have rules around what kind of information gets shared — if you want your child to be able to know their donor siblings, that is something you can include in your criteria.

An article shared by international sperm bank Cryos referenced work done by Susan Golombok, a Professor of Family Research and the Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, on this topic. Her studies on the subject “show that donor children are well adjusted and that they are no different from children in other families.” In fact, “donor-conceived children who are told about the donor early on, do not seem to be distressed – they are either not very interested in their origins or are curious to know more.” If anything, she’s found “the make-up of their family does not affect the wellbeing of these children, but intolerance of their family does.”

Only you can decide if you’re going to have a child. Some would argue that having a child at all isn’t ethical, but making the decision to become a parent isn’t that cut and dry. When I had my son, I was unemployed. We had to live with my parents for a few years until I was able to get on my feet enough to move. I have been a low income parent for most of the past 10 years. People would argue that it was unethical for me to have my son if I couldn’t afford to properly care for him. But if you ask him, I don’t think he’d agree.

You say you’ve always wanted to be a parent. What would your life feel like if you chose not to be one? When you have these issues around the ethical way to have a child, whose opinion are you worried about? If it’s other people, who cares? They’re not the ones who are going through the process, you are. When you say “profit from their trauma,” what do you mean? We can’t anticipate how our kids are going to feel about their life. We can only do the best we can. You shouldn’t not have a kid because you’re worried that when they’re older they’re going to think their conception was unethical. If it comes up, you can work through it then. But if you’ve always seen yourself as a parent, then you should be one.

You’ve done the research and found people who are donor conceived and find it unethical, but have you looked at all the stories of people who are grateful their moms went through the process to make them? Everything about having a child will have upsides and downsides. However, if you feel a strong pull to have a child and take the route of having one biologically, then you should do it. Because chances are, if you’re open and honest with your kid from the beginning, how they came to be may not matter as much as how much you love them.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 122 articles for us.

24 Comments

  1. I have so much respect for the LW for starting this conversation. It’s thorny, and often queer people who want to be parents feel fragile about their desires (understandably) or demand validation for them and shut down any conversations about the complications. It seems much healthier to talk about the different feelings people have without judging them.

    People in my queer communities, especially QPOC, often question those who use resources to conceive children instead of sharing what they have with children who already exist, especially kids of color. I know the difficulties of transracial adoption are very real, but this idea also has a lot of proponents, and I thought that the LW was alluding to it in the letter.

    I would also add, as someone who also knows and loves a lot of queerspawn, I would also counsel anyone thinking of using a donor to prepare really early on for your kids wanting to meet/know/have a relationship with a donor. For most of the kids I know, this was important, and there were often very difficult dynamics when the parents didn’t want it to happen, were ostensibly supportive but let their hurt feelings show too much, or otherwise made the kids feel they had to hide those desires (often by being in queer community spaces that promoted the idea that healthy kids or kids with supportive families don’t want to do this).

    Sending the courageous, thoughtful, and loving LW the best making the decisions that are right for them and their family!

    • It seems pretty clear the substance of this person’s ethical concerns is pain they may cause their future child. The idea that the solution is to refocus on their own desire to be a parent, reframe their concerns as “worrying about other people’s opinions”, and seek out information that would make them feel better about their choice to conceive via donor seems to be deflecting the seriousness of their concerns a bit… Knowing that many children do want a relationship with their donor, it’s highly relevant whether that person is a faceless stranger with potentially dozens of other children or someone with whom a relationship would be possible.

      • Yes, definitely a/the main concern of mine is the impact on future potential children! I know already I would absolutely only be open to a more open donor situation (not completely anonymous/closed) for this exact reason.

    • LW here! Thank you so much for the well wishes and for your perspective—I’m seeing even in these comments this same dichotomy of either heavily centering parent desires or heavily centering ideal ethics and not enough useful in between! It’s really nice to try and actually hold these conversations, though, especially before actually getting into the process of becoming a parent.

  2. I’ll weigh in as an adoptive parent who takes the problems with adoption very seriously. I was pretty naive when I started thinking about adoption, and my partner and I did a lot of research to educate ourselves. I was open to adopting an older child—and dealing with all the trauma that comes with that—but my partner had their heart set on raising a baby, so we went the infant adoption route… which led to a whole new set of concerns around how entangled infant adoption is with the antiabortion movement. All that to say, it’s pretty fucked up out there, whether due to the state separating families of color or kids coming from forced pregnancies. BUT there are still kids who need homes for one reason or another, and providing a home that not only acknowledges but creates space for centering the stories behind adoption—especially the hard ones—makes a big difference.

    From what I’ve read, so many adoptee stories that reflect badly on the practice reveal very troubling understandings of family/children as property. Even adoptive families that claim to practice “open adoption” can end up minimizing the pain of losing one’s first family. If adoption is on the table, adjusting how you both understand and talk about family can make a big difference, from little things like using “first family” instead of “birth family,” to big things like building and maintaining connection to extended connections in the first family beyond parents. The way we think of it is that we didn’t just adopt this individual child, we adopted a whole new extended family that came with her. And just like all families, these relationships involve careful negotiation of boundaries on all sides, respect, and love.

    And though my partner and our child share their Blackness, as a white parent I also echo and reiterate the points made above about transracial adoption. It takes a lot of learning and action, and may mean challenging some of the things you take for granted about parenting. But it is both doable and worth it.

    • Hi commenters, I’m the original letter writer! Just wondering if anyone has any other suggestions for resources to consider this further?
      I really appreciate all the perspectives I’ve seen in the response and comments! One of the reasons I have been especially hung up on the ethics of adoption as opposed to donor conception is because for health reasons it is unlikely I will be able to actually carry a child, and my partner is not interested or comfortable in doing so. I also, though I’m not sure if this is valid or not, feel weird about the idea of having a stranger’s genetics in my own body? Anyway, thank you all for wonderful feedback, and I’m glad to have started this conversation!

      Also, if anyone is an AP, adoptee, or DCC/P and would feel comfortable talking to me about their experience, I would greatly appreciate it.

  3. I was adopted and while I am grateful for the family I have, there is still inherent trauma to being rejected by a biological family. My partner and I would not consider adoption.

    We are having these same concerns and conversation about sperm donors and I wanted to share two resources. One is https://www.usdcc.org/ the US Donor Conceived Council, which is run by donor conceived people and has leadership with mental health training. The other is The Seed Scout, which is a company founded by queer women to match donors with families. They address most of my major concerns by allowing both the donor and the recipient to consent to the match, facilitating virtual introductions, entering into binding agreements to donate to three families or fewer, and requiring annual contact to update medical records and keep the kinship connection. They are here: https://www.theseedscout.com/

    Thanks for asking a question we have been grappling hard with in a public space and thanks to Autostraddle for publishing it/starting a convo!

  4. If anyone has recommendations on children’s books to have those conversations early (re: user a donor) it would be much appreciated! The social worker we had to talk to had written a lovely book, but it was still yet to be published / exists only as a word doc

  5. I have always wanted to be a parent. I was interested in being a foster parent but my ex-wife was less comfortable with the idea, so we tried the route of IVf using her gametes before transition and my gametes. It didn’t work. After many discussions we decided to go through the foster parenting classes with the goal of supporting lgbt+ youth in the system. Parenting was not a good fit for her. She wanted to be a parent as a noun but not to do parenting as a verb.

    As a foster/adopt parent for quite a few years, I love that I have been able to do parenting, so much parenting, and to support bio parents! Yes the foster care system is problematic and we as a society should be doing so much more to support bio/first families! Also, not everyone should be a foster/adopt parent. Like Professor Queermo said, you have to be open to connections with the bio/first families. I love all of the bonus people in my life and in my children’s lives! I love knowing that I’ve been able to support bio parents when they needed help by caring for their children, giving the children tools for navigating life, and cheering the parents when they are able to parent their children again.

    • You seem thoughtful in how you speak about the system and society as a whole not doing enough for bio/first families and how you try to have an open, supportive connection with them that makes reunification more likely.

      Are there any resources or writing you would recommend to a person trying to figure out if they could be a good (as in acting in the best interests of a child) foster parent in the future?

      Both in terms of the ethics of it all and practicality (like space, what financial/education/mental healthcare resources a kid would need, etc.)

      I’m about to graduate college and the decision of whether to parent or not seems far way.

      Until recently I assumed I wouldn’t be a parent. I haven’t felt a deep, lifelong desire for it, I’m not particularly interested in having a baby (don’t have siblings or really spend time around children right now), I’m definitely not interested in carrying a pregnancy, I enjoy the opportunity for solitude, spontaneity and the energy/time I have for other things at the moment (was looking at childless artists and activists for ideas in how I wanted to live my life), I don’t currently have a partner or a potential parenting support system and I live in an expensive city (though with good public transportation) where it’d be hard to find a two-bedroom place.

      But reading about that chilling law in Tennessee that enshrines the ability of homophobic/transphobic people to foster LGBTQ kids led me to do more reading about what being and caring for a LGBTQ teen in the system can or has historically looked like.

      I would need a lot more time to figure out if being a foster parent is something I could/should do, but I do think I would be better at caring for a teenager—with their own desires, needs, relationships and likely traumas—than an infant.

      Do you have any advice for someone trying to figure out if their feelings are just a sign that they want to be, “a parent as a noun” vs. wanting to, “do parenting as a verb”?

      And what are other ways to support LGBTQ young people, both in the system and outside it?

      • There’s a Facebook group Adoption: Facing Realities, that I have found to be helpful when looking at how problematic adoption, especially the infant adoption industry, can be.

        I was talking with someone who was thinking about becoming a foster parent and I said that my kids always want their mom, and she said of course. Of course kids want their mom, their first/bio mom. It is so important to be able to acknowledge that and support the kids in their complicated feelings.

        Also my kids have all been through more than any person should have to survive, and it’s critical to understand trauma and how it affects functionality. My goal is to give my teenagers a soft resting place for a while. Where they can be themselves without getting forced to attend church.

        Best wishes as you think through life options!

  6. This reader’s question really resonated with me as my wife and I are in the early days of trying to have a baby. Most other queer parents in our circle have been using known donors specifically because they want their child to have a connection to that part of their identity (and also usually much more affordable). It’s also valuable to have communication with a known donor in case of medical emergencies. But for us, there just isn’t anyone in our life that we feel comfortable asking to donate, so a sperm bank is going to be the route we take. To help us make more informed choices, we turned to our community. We’re working with a queer, trans midwife with lots of experience navigating the cryobank system. I’m privileged to have a friend who is donor conceived and willing to share their feelings about it and their perspective has been invaluable. That said, we have narrowed down our search to cryobank donors that are listed as being open to contact either at any time or after our child turns 18. I also highly recommend checking out a copy of Queer Conception by Kristin L. Kali.
    Any time you make big decisions like this, it can be easy to get hung up on trying to make a perfect choice, when really you just need to find the one that works best for your family.

  7. I highly recommend The Sperm Bank of California for anyone looking for donor sperm. They were created in the 80’s by and for queer women, limit donors to 10 families (our donor only helped 4 other families), and have excellent research available on supporting your donor conceived kids. You have the option of connecting with families that use the same donor and your children can have the option to connect with their donor when they turn 18.

  8. You’re not going to be able to eliminate friction from your child’s life – whether you conceive naturally, use a donor, or adopt. In light of this, it’s important that your intentions are clear, you keep the lines of communication open, and you prepare for the potential friction that may come (as best you can).

  9. I think this is a super important set of questions that received a terrible, misinformed response. To the original asker, I would say: adoption is not ethical, in any scenario. If you’re interested in supporting children that have no other options, look into legal guardianship as a slightly better option. Having children via a donor is usually just another form of adoption. Any approach that involves severing ties with a child’s biological parents is traumatic to that child and impacts them for life, even if it’s done at birth. The only option I would say is ethical is using a donor that also wants to be a parent and all of you be involved in the raising of that child. I suggest checking out adoptee twitter and donor conceived twitter to understand the real impact that the adoption industry has on children and families.

    • What makes you the authority on what types of families should exist and how they should be made? You seem to think that a genetic relationship automatically makes someone a healthy and necessary presence in a child’s life. Many people who don’t have relationships with one or both parents as adults could tell you otherwise, but it doesn’t seem like you’ve bothered to learn about experiences outside of your personal bubble.
      Calling conceiving a child through sperm donation the same as adoption is also just extremely inaccurate and entirely unreasonable.
      Your argument can be honestly summarized as “children need a mother and a father,” and I’m very hurt and disappointed to see that on a sapphic website.

  10. Really really happy to see this conversation here, because with a DCC I think about it every day and wish that my wife and I had had more resources when we were starting the whole process.

    I suggest looking at COLAGE National which is a community of queerspawn for queerspawn, and they have several guides for kids/parents/prospective parents etc, so it’s a good place to start.

  11. Hi commenters, I’m the original letter writer! Just wondering if anyone has any other suggestions for resources to consider this further?
    I really appreciate all the perspectives I’ve seen in the response and comments! One of the reasons I have been especially hung up on the ethics of adoption as opposed to donor conception is because for health reasons it is unlikely I will be able to actually carry a child, and my partner is not interested or comfortable in doing so. I also, though I’m not sure if this is valid or not, feel weird about the idea of having a stranger’s genetics in my own body? Anyway, thank you all for wonderful feedback, and I’m glad to have started this conversation!

    Also, if anyone is an AP, adoptee, or DCC/P and would feel comfortable talking to me about their experience, I would greatly appreciate it.

    • Hey Sarah Alexander,

      I was born via traditional surrogacy and I run https://surrogacy-stories.com/, regularly read articles on the topic, and, for example, emailed with Susan Golombok 9 years ago (the researcher referenced in this article). I recommend reading her actual research – it’s quite limited and is not a pass to do whatever you want. I’m also LGBTQ+. While not completely applicable to donor conceived people necessarily, here’s a basic place to start with a list of questions: https://surrogacy-stories.com/2022/09/08/questions-to-ask-when-considering-surrogacy/ I mean no disrespect to the person who responded but this is not a well informed nor donor conceived informed response. For starters, do not trust everything fertility agencies or random unqualified advice columnists share and center donor conceived people. I’d recommend looking into organizations like this: https://donorconceivedcommunity.org/support

      I want to underscore what the commentor Megs says above: “Any approach that involves severing ties with a child’s biological parents is traumatic to that child and impacts them for life, even if it’s done at birth. The only option I would say is ethical is using a donor that also wants to be a parent and all of you be involved in the raising of that child.”

      Do not, I repeat, do not put the question of the ethics of how a child was born onto the same child. It has made me profoundly suicidal for many years and I have only in the last few years come to understand why. Continuity of relationship is critical and no one is entitled to a child if you are not able to make that happen. It’s hard, brutal, and gnarly but if you go an easy route ALL of that will be displaced onto your child, whether they talk to you about it or not. They will be the ones who will have to live the questions of your decisions.

      Happy to chat with you more about this and I appreciate you deeply wanting to do right. Not everyone does.

  12. As a fellow overthinker and over-researcher, who appreciates all the great concrete tips shared on this thread, I am also here to lovingly suggest you cannot homework your way through this decision. The thing that unlocked the parenting decision for me and my partner was realising we were writing a story of how our baby came to be, that one day we could tell our child, and at a gut level the story had to feel right, and sound right, and be something we were excited to tell them. The research we had done helped a bit (another punt for Susan Golombok’s work), but it wasn’t determinative, and I’m afraid to say as for most things in life, probably served to some degree as post-hoc rationalisation haha.

    Also as someone who has a little bit of experience working in child and adolescent mental health, I am often struck by how rich and complex children’s lives are, and though there are some simple conditions that make things better, beyond that is a sea of contingencies and things over which you have no hope of control. Above all, you cannot effectively parent from a place of fear. Yes, one day your child may have difficult feelings about their origins (as do many, many, many children of straight relationships). If you are thinking about your future child’s wellbeing, you are thinking about how to share openly with them how you came to be their parent, and you are aware of the difficult feelings and experiences they may have as a result of it, then you are setting your family up to navigate the uncertainties to come. Also, you absolutely have to take your capacity, resources, and desires into account! This is not to say you shouldn’t be guided by what is best for your future child, and sometimes push yourself into personal discomfort if you think it is worthwhile, but there is no reason to frame your wellbeing coming at the expense of their’s or vice versa.

    Anyway, I hope you can find moments of joy or excitement as you make your way through this process! It can be a tough grind to have to be so deliberate in all your actions, even if it is ultimately really meaningful, and those lighter moments of anticipation really keep you going. All the best.

  13. As someone who was conceived via a donor I have to say I’m pretty fine with it! The way my parents handled telling me wasn’t great, but the fact itself has never really bothered me and it’s not something I have any interest in looking into. The only thing I would be interested in would be medical records as I have some unusual health stuff but since that’s not an option (due to the laws in place at the time) I don’t think about it much.

    Obviously I can’t speak for anyone other than myself and others may feel differently but just wanted to include that perspective.

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