Jemima Lewis: Children need more than sperm for a father

People who grow up without a father are usually afflicted by a bothersome void in their lives


If there were any radical feminists left, they would be jumping out of their comfortable shoes with joy. The "wimmin's world" of which those early agitators dreamed - a utopia of female self-sufficiency, with men serving only to rub our feet and peel our grapes - is almost upon us, or so you might think from the headlines.

A team of British scientists announced this week that they had turned stem cells into sperm,raising the possibility that women one day may be able to produce sperm with which to inseminate each other. Admittedly, the mice on which they tried this experiment all gave birth to defective offspring whose lives were nasty and short, so it may take a few decades to perfect the technology.

More imminently, lesbians and singletons will be able to have IVF treatment without rustling up a father-figure for the unborn child. Under the Government's shake-up of embryology laws, doctors will still be obliged to vet would-be parents with the child's welfare in mind, but the "need for a father" will be replaced by the "need for a family".

The question of whether children need fathers is extraordinarily fraught, given that the obvious answer is yes. Children are instinctively conservative: nothing makes them happier than the feeling of belonging to a conventional and stable family unit. In an ideal world, where the contentment of the child was paramount, all mothers would be sweet-smelling, stay-at-home cake-bakers; all fathers pipe-smoking, head-patting patresfamilias.

But if such a world ever existed, it certainly doesn't now. The emancipation of women demolished that Eden; and the culture of individualism has all but finished the job. Parenthood - once an uncontroversial fact of life - has become, at least for the middle classes, a pressing matter of personal fulfilment.

Many women now consider motherhood a right, even when their circumstances (such as old age, infertility or the lack of a man in their lives) would seem to militate against it. They pursue that right with iron-jawed determination, enlisting science to help them to create families that would have been unimaginable half a century ago. To their critics, they insist that they can give a child all the love it needs to overcome its unusual upbringing.

To some extent, they are right. Studies suggest that, broadly speaking, children who have a mother and father at home do better at school and are less inclined to turn to drugs or criminality. However, children of women who carefully plan their single parenthood seem to do as well as those from conventional families. Women for whom motherhood is a personal quest, rather than a mere side effect of copulation, devote huge amounts of time and energy to getting it right.

But to say that children can, with a lot of help, rise above fatherlessness is not actually a ringing endorsement of single motherhood. It merely shows that it's possible to make the best of a bad situation. The fact remains that people who grow up without a father are usually afflicted by, at the very least, a bothersome void in their lives.

In The Independent on Sunday last week, a Cambridge graduate called Tom Ellis described how it feels to be the child of a sperm donor. The man he thought was his father was actually infertile, and his mother had two sons by different donors. When Ellis discovered the truth, it made sense of some things - why he didn't look like his brother, and why he had never felt close to his father - but made an appalling muddle of the rest.

"I had been taught by my parents, and at school, that any family is OK so long as somebody loves you," he wrote. "It's not. I wish it were. I now have a deep need to find out who my father is. I need to know who it is that makes me who I am. You can't put a child or an adult into a situation like this and tell them that all you need is love and care, because it's not true. You need the genetic links, too ... I feel like a tree that has half of its roots missing. And without them, I can hardly stand up."

The all-you-need-is-love doctrine - as adopted into law under the new IVF guidelines - wilfully ignores what common sense tells us. Each of our parents is literally half of us: take away either half and you are bound to leave a wound. Fathers don't actually need to do very much to make a child happy (my own father's paternal duties were confined to making fart jokes and doing tribal dances in his underpants), but they do need to be there.

The heartening news is that women seem to be increasingly wise to this. Lesbians who want to start families go to great lengths to find men, usually gay, who want to be fathers rather than mere donors.

Straight, single women are trying to hammer out similar arrangements. Jennie Withers, 41, has been doing the rounds of the media this week, asking for men to volunteer to be a "co-parent". No romantic strings attached: she just wants their sperm and their active participation in the child's life. It's still a long way from any child's dream family, but I suppose you could call it progress.

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