When I began to shop for donor sperm, I was already desperate for a baby.
My urgency defied logic. Though I wasn’t even thirty, I’d spent years already longing for a child, imagining what it would be like to hold a sleeping infant or to carry on conversations with a toddler while I drove us to the zoo. I imagined that having a child would make life’s colors more brilliant, and this belief made me impatient.
Because my partner Kellie and I couldn’t conceive the way most straight couples could, we’d spent months hashing out our approach to family building, debating if and when and how we’d start a family. By the time we reached alignment, I was like a dog who is finally released from restraint to fetch a frisbee. Because of my eagerness, I did not think to be skeptical of the sperm banking industry. I did not yet even understand it as a commercial industry but rather imagined it as a benevolent service designed solely to help people in need. I wanted to believe that buying sperm was simple.
Once I began the actual process of choosing a sperm bank and a donor, my intuition told me otherwise. As I looked through a print catalog that one of the country’s leading sperm banks had sent me, I was startled by the youth of the hypothetical donors featured in the photos. The smiling young men in the brochure didn’t quite look like men to me. I understood that these were stock photos, not actual donors, and yet suddenly the prospect of buying sperm felt more complicated. Staring at the picture made me think of factory farming, of dairy cows hooked to milking machines, of chickens dropping eggs in chutes. Were these boys ready to commit to a lifetime of knowing there were children out there that they had helped create? I suspected that most of them just wanted the money for textbooks or beer.
In the short term, I dealt with my quandary by purchasing sperm from a smaller, lesbian-owned sperm bank that recruited donors through Craig’s List. Their donor pool seemed more mature, and it seemed that the receptionist there knew everyone by name. Later, when I began to research the history of the sperm banking industry for my book The Other Mothers, I learned that there are good reasons to be cautious about donor sperm.
While it’s true that donors go through an elaborate application process, it’s also true that sperm banks are unable to verify much of the information potential donors report. In an alarming example of this, a lesbian couple sued Xytex Corporation for selling them semen from a donor who claimed to be a “Ph.D. candidate with an IQ of 160, a clean mental health history and no criminal record.” As it turned out, the son they conceived with his donor sperm inherited both medical and mental health issues, and it turned out that the donor had a criminal record, known heritable illnesses and had lied about his degree. While this is a rare and extreme example, it suggests that the documentation that sperm banks provide may offer the illusion of a complete screening rather than an actual one.
Unlike other countries, the U.S. has no firm legal limits on how many families can conceive children with a single donor. While the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends a limit of 25 children, and while sperm banks may aim to meet these guidelines, they are dependent on recipient families to report successful conceptions and births. Furthermore, one persistent reality is that sperm banks find it incredibly difficult and expensive to recruit eligible donors. Once they find them, it’s in their financial best interest to retain them for as long as possible. The Sperm Bank of California, the U.S.’s only non-profit sperm bank, departs from the larger industry and sets limits to a more responsible 10 families per donor.
In the time I spent researching assisted reproduction, I also learned something else: that donor-conceived children experience a wide range of feelings about their origin stories. Straight couples who conceived via donor sperm were once advised to keep this information secret.
In this new era of DNA testing, many donor-conceived children who grew up believing that their social father was also their genetic father have experienced a traumatic rupture upon receiving the results of a commercial DNA test. Dani Shapiro’s book Inheritance offers a compelling account of one such experience. Psychologists and clinicians now agree that children should know the truth of their origins early on so that they can integrate the information into their identity. Still, the task of reckoning with a donor-conceived identity in a culture that deeply values heredity isn’t always easy. The website We Are Donor Conceived offers a window into the wide range of feelings that donor-conceived people can have about their origins.
Though I tried for nearly two years to conceive via anonymous donor sperm, I ultimately built my family with the help of a straight couple my wife and I knew. My children know their donor family, and I’m learning that how they see themselves and how they feel about their origins is largely up to them and not me. I hope that, like me, they see their origin story as a sign that they were loved and wanted—not just by my partner and me, but by our community. However, I work to make room for complicated feelings and hope that as they get older they might be willing to share their thoughts with me.
I’ve come to hold this paradox: I’m deeply grateful that I live in an era that allows me the agency to be with the partner I love and to innovate ways to build families in spite of the limitations. At the same time, I think we need to have open conversations about what it means to conceive using donor sperm.