Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: A Father’s Story

by Sandra Williams Schlenker

Michael Dorris wanted to be a father, but he lacked a partner. Did this stop him? No; Dorris decided to adopt.

His decision came at a busy time. His candidacy for a Yale doctorate was in the works. He had recently completed a cross-country move from Alaska to New Hampshire and was beginning a new job assignment.

Being part Native American, Dorris requested a Native American child. His application was forwarded to a national adoption service, which located a three-year-old boy from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Dorris was warned that the child had been born premature. His mother had been a heavy drinker and had neglected him; he had not been toilet-trained or taught to speak more than a few words. Despite these problems, Dorris was committed to adopt the boy he calls Adam* in his book The Broken Cord.

Dorris labored over his manuscript six years. Since its publication, he has been heaped with praise for telling the story of raising a child diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is now recognized as the leading known cause of mental retardation in the Western world (Burgess and Streissguth, 1992).


A February 16, 1993, story in the Argus Leader indicated that 8,000 FAS babies are born each year in the United States. Another 48,000 are born with Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), a condition with less pronounced symptoms.

Dorris writes that individuals who have FAS share several recognizable characteristics: 1) significant growth retardation both before and after birth; 2) measurable mental deficit; 3) altered facial characteristics; 4) other physical abnormalities; and 5) history of maternal alcoholism.

In 1971, however, when Dorris became an adoptive parent to a FAS child, FAE and FAS were unheard of. It wasn’t until 1982 that Dorris learned the name of his son’s condition, also referred to as “Alcohol’s Child.”

Warnings and Dangers

In 1981, the Food and Drug Administration began warning health professionals that pregnant women should drink no alcohol at all. Even small, casual doses had been linked to increased risk of low birth weight and spontaneous abortion.

After reading Dorris’ book, I picked up a book my mother had read during her pregnancies: Expectant Motherhood. Author Nicholson J. Eastman, M.D., professor of obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University (1952), wrote that small amounts of alcohol, as in an occasional cocktail, were harmless. The most they could cause was frequent urination.

But according to Dorris and a number of other FAS and FAE authorities, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Dorris criticizes doctors’ failure (until recently) to point out the dangers of alcohol use by pregnant women.

Paternal Responsibility

Much of the literature I have reviewed on FAS and FAE is directed toward alcohol use by women. However, it is interesting to note a U.S. News & World Report article by Karen F. Schmidt, entitled “The Dark Legacy of Fatherhood.” Introducing the article, the editors note, “It’s not just prospective mothers whose habits can damage the health of their children.”

New research suggests that a man’s exposure to chemicals influences not only his ability to father a child, but also the future health of his children. The March of Dimes has launched a campaign called “Men Have Babies, Too.” It has now been documented that men exposed to toxic chemicals often produce sperm with misshapen heads, crooked tails, and retarded swimming ability.

Medical experts had assumed that these men were infertile and thus incapable of passing along any defects to their children. Schmidt continues:

Although a fraction of birth defects are caused by the random errors of nature, it now appears likely that some disorders can be traced to sperm battered by chemicals. . . . Tainted semen may also interfere with reproduction. . . . poisons interfere with the early development and successful implantation of the embryo in the mother’s uterus. . . . If the March of Dimes campaign is successful, the man of the 90’s will prepare for parenthood by moderating his habits hand in hand with his wife.

Dorris alludes to this in his Epilogue. He cites disturbing news for alcoholic fathers as well, based on January 1990 research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Dorris learned several years after the adoption that both biological parents to his adoptive child had abused alcohol.


Despite special teachers, numerous examinations by medical doctors and psychologists, and a father who devoted quality time to him, Adam Dorris made slow and limited intellectual and social progress. The last chapter of the book is entitled “The Adam Dorris Story by Adam Dorris.” With errors in spelling and punctuation, Adam describes his biggest triumphs: stacking wood and pulling up burdock bushes.

At age twenty-three, Adam was struck by a car while coming home from work. Two weeks later, he died having never regained consciousness. Dorris recounts this tragedy in Parents Magazine, November 1992.

Unanswered Questions

Michael Dorris leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. What should communities do with pregnant women who insist on drinking? How can society possibly protect an unborn child against parental behavior that is not only legal almost everywhere, but also nearly impossible to prevent anywhere? Should such women be incarcerated? Should mothers of fetal alcohol children be sterilized if they intend to keep drinking and reproducing? Can civil rights be revoked for the protection of the unborn? Should liquor companies be held liable for these damaged children if adequate warnings are not on their products?

The Broken Cord has compelled me to do further reading on the subjects of FAS and FAE. I recently did a library computer resource search that netted over seventy-five sources. Fellow educators have directed me to professionals in South Dakota who have dedicated research and time to FAS and FAE. Their efforts are still in the pioneering stages.

What can you and I do? Encourage pastors, congregations, school districts, and community organizations to develop plans to confront the issues of FAS and FAE. Become informed. Create effective programs for educating parents and children. And most of all, be compassionate.

* Adam’s real name was Abel, but Dorris changed it in the book to protect his privacy.