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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside  

Autumn’s subtle charm is greatly enhanced by this Indian summer

Michael McCarthy
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments