In 2006, as a Probate and Family Court judge in Boston, I began hearing a case filed by a self-represented woman who requested an order that a sperm facility disclose the identity of the father of her two young daughters. She gave as her primary reason that the children suffered from health issues and needed a complete medical history from their father. As a secondary ground, she cited the children’s need for financial support. After multiple hearings and several trips between the Probate and Family Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the complaint was dismissed in 2011. (The first decision of the Appeals Court can be found here.)
By the end of the case, the process of anonymous sperm “donation” struck me as inhumane, and sperm “donation” in general as thoughtless, even though many of the individuals involved behave in understandably human ways. In today’s article I explain the problems for fathers and children created by sperm donation. Tomorrow I address the role of money as a problematic incentive for “donation” and offer suggestions for how we can slow the growth of the sperm-sale industry.
Harms Arising from the Sale of Sperm
When we focus on the friend, relative, or child who may have ties to sperm donation, we avoid seeing certain realities, or if we glimpse them, we often keep quiet in order not to offend. I know wonderful women who are kind and loving mothers to their children conceived through sperm donation. But the impact of a billion-dollar gamete industry reaches well beyond them.
Advertisements for sperm and egg donations are ubiquitous. We currently sugarcoat the process with euphemistic language, labeling “selling” as “donating” to make adults feel good about their “altruistic” donation. And who will want to say otherwise?
In August 2011, Rene Almeling, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, released a carefully researched book called Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. Almeling interviewed staff from clinics as well as sperm and egg donors. Her factual findings prove useful for showing the ills of commercial sperm donation.
First, the process of providing sperm degrades and objectifies men. Men report to a facility where they are directed to a room containing pornography. There, they masturbate until they ejaculate into a cup, and then they deliver the cup to a staff member. The contents may be split up into as many as nine vials and frozen with liquid nitrogen. If the man’s sperm quality is good enough, he will get paid. Almeling writes that the founder of one facility “proudly showed off what he called ‘masturbatoriums,’ small rooms with erotic pictures on the walls and flat-screen televisions for watching pornographic movies.”
Almeling also records the following comments from sperm sellers:
Ethan: What’s weird about it is going into a doctor’s office and jerking off. It’s kind of like a sexual thing you’re using in a totally nonsexual way. It’s not the privacy of your own bedroom, and it’s not whenever else you might choose to masturbate. This is like masturbation on demand. You’re a lab rat. You can go in and smile and say all the nice things you want every morning, but they really want you for one thing. You are a walking sperm donor.
Ben: I felt like a piece of meat almost. I felt like a cow. I’m being milked for something that I can provide.
Dennis: You’re sort of like an asset to them, and if you’re not performing, they don’t want to have any part of you. I finished giving my sample, and they were like, “So you’ve had three bad samples. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what the problem is, but you really need to fix this.” I was like, “Yikes. Okay!”
The men’s profiles are then paraded on the internet like cattle at an auction and women shop for sperm based on features like height, weight, eye color, SAT scores, and athleticism.
Second, selling sperm corrupts our society’s concept of fatherhood. Humans should care for their children. It has always been considered a tragedy when they fail to do so. Our society already suffers from an absentee father crisis. What message does it send to children when men so obviously don’t care when, where, or to whom their children are born? The boom in the sperm sale business will damage children’s perception of what it means to be a man and a father. As anthropologist Margaret Mead has written, “the supreme task of any society is to teach its men to be good fathers.”
Third, the sperm sale industry deliberately creates fatherless children. Thanks to better treatments for male infertility, fewer heterosexual couples are purchasing commercial sperm. Instead, the buyers are primarily single heterosexual women and lesbian couples. Single heterosexual women who want marriage and children are giving up on men swamped by a culture antithetical to male maturity. An excess of recreational sex, pornography, and video games has fostered male self-absorption.
Lesbian couples more often choose to purchase sperm over adoption, in part because the countries whose children U.S. couples most frequently adopt—Guatemala, China, Ethiopia, South Korea, and Russia—explicitly ban gay and lesbian couples from adopting. Single gays and lesbians can try to skirt these policies by not identifying their sexual orientation unless asked. But married same-sex couples must reveal their marriage. Still, the shift from adoption to buying sperm is more likely due to lesbian women’s wish to have their own biological children, the same desire that motivates single heterosexual women.
Fourth, sperm sales encourage the commodification of children. As improbable as it may seem, some children born are not fully accepted and loved because they fail to develop as advertised. In other words, a mother who pays for looks, intelligence, and athleticism but sees none of those in her child may not love the child unconditionally. In consumer terms, this would be called purchasing a “lemon.”
We all want to believe that no one would ever do this. But we need to remember that as the sperm is shipped around the world, nobody checks on who is getting it. Nobody checks child abuse records. Nobody checks mental health history. Nobody checks anything about the buyers.
Fifth, while the harms I’ve discussed apply to both “identity release” sellers of sperm—sellers who agree to let conceived children access their biological information once they turn eighteen—and anonymous sellers, anonymous sperm sale is particularly inhumane. Thanks to the efforts of adult commercially conceived children, buyers can now learn more easily that donor anonymity is often painful for the child conceived to endure. Olivia Pratten, who is donor-conceived, wrote in 2010:
If biological roots didn’t matter, we wouldn’t have a whole fertility industry whose priority is to maximize the genetic continuity of the parents using the technologies. If it didn’t matter, no one would care about having their own biological children. People who are infertile grieve not being able to pass on their lineage to their children. I grieve the same thing: not knowing the person who gave me mine.
In May 2011, Pratten won a landmark victory in a Canadian court, which ruled that “assisted reproduction using an anonymous gamete donor is harmful to the child, and is not in the best interests of donor offspring.” Unfortunately, in November 2012, an Appeals Court reversed the lower court decision. Pratten plans to appeal the most recent decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. Britain, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and parts of New Zealand and Australia have already banned anonymous sperm “donation” on humanitarian grounds.
“Cryokids” Speaking Out
If you read the stories of adult donor-conceived children with anonymous parents on websites such as Anonymous Us, Connect It, Tangled Webs UK, and Confessions of a Cryokid, you will feel the deep pain many of these adults experience. One study found that among donor-conceived offspring:
65% agreed that the sperm donor is half of who they are.
45% were bothered by the circumstances of their conception.
Almost 50% report that they think about donor conception at least a few times a week or more often.
58% agreed that when they see someone who resembles them, they wonder if they are related.
46% agreed that they have worried that someone they are physically attracted to could be related to them.
One donor-conceived adult wrote that
this ground swell of questions and loss from one group has resulted in another group responding with answers in the media—the parents and donors. It’s as if Hollywood is telling the story the way everyone would like to hear it, especially donors and parents worried they might have made a poor decision. The witty romantic comedy or the quirky indie film provides a happy ending so we all can know, yes it's ok, “The Kids Are Alright.” Yet, the kids aren’t alright, they are usually pretty upset and in many ways they haven’t really been truly heard.
It is not uncommon for donor-conceived children who speak against sperm and egg donation to be faulted for being “ungrateful.” Donor-conceived filmmaker Barry Stevens has responded, “if that were true, then anyone who is the product of a rape would have to endorse rape . . . It’s quite possible to be grateful for your life and question aspects of your conception.”
Both sperm donors and their children are harmed by the sperm-sale industry. The money paid to donors especially fosters the irresponsibility to which donors are already prone—but more on that tomorrow.
John M. Smoot served as a trial court judge of Boston’s Probate and Family Court from 1990 to 2012.