The question that is on my mind today is whether I have an obligation to come forward as a sperm donor, as part of the new norms for responsible men that are being written. Thirty years ago, the answer was a resounding “NO”. In today’s world, I’m not as certain.
My experience as a donor started out innocently enough, when two women—childhood friends of mine—simultaneously had trouble conceiving. In an impulsive act of solidarity, I decided that I should assist other couples looking for a surrogate. Investigating my options, I discovered that a reputable clinic operated only a block away from my apartment. The lab agreed that donors would remain anonymous. Heaving a sigh of relief that I did not have to worry that there would be a paternity lawsuit down the road, or any attempt to establish contact between donor and child, I decided to become a donor.
It was a pretty straightforward affair. I dropped in without an appointment on my way to business school. The nurses asked me to provide some personal information, and pop into a small private room to produce a specimen for the lab. Twenty minutes later, I was informed that the number and motility of my gametes was up to code. Pleased by my capacity to reproduce and make a contribution that might be life-changing for another family, I double-checked my zipper, put on my coat, and prepared to strut out of the lab, with a bounce in my step.
It was then that the head nurse stopped me at the door, and raised a question that I had not anticipated. Would I “consider making a few more donations?” Her reasoning was pretty solid. In the clinic’s experience, couples often needed several samples for each pregnancy. Moreover, they generally preferred to raise kids who shared DNA from the same man.
I paused, realizing that my one-and-done donation might not have achieved the outcome I had intended. She then added that the lab would pay me a small fee for my services and “the inconvenience it might impose;” they requested that I agree to refrain from sex for 48 hours before each donation.
My mind quickly did the mental math that was most important to me: my girlfriend and I could have sex roughly the same amount of times each week, if we planned ahead. The small “honorarium” the clinic offered was nice, but also unsettling. Wasn’t getting paid for my services akin to being a hustler? However, doing the math again, I realized that at best my services were going to cover a couple dinners. I was still within the realm of respectable, gentlemanly behavior.
Taking a deep breath, I agreed to talk it over with my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife. Later that night, we decided that it was a worthy cause, not unlike giving blood.
My visits to the clinic quickly became routine. When the day came that I was ready to wrap it up, the nurse once again inquired whether it was possible for me to continue dropping into the lab. Exasperated, I asked, “Now why?” She somewhat sheepishly indicated that my “brown hair, green eyes, Ivy league” profile was getting a lot of attention in their catalog. There were many more requests than I had provided donations.
Recently drilled in the laws of supply and demand, I sighed. I hadn’t planned on making a career out of being a sperm donor, but since the clinic was conveniently on the way to school, I agreed to show up twice a week for the remainder of the year, providing approximately 70 donations.
I remember that I was both thrilled and disturbed that I was being objectified by couples. What were they thinking? Was it my physical attributes, my extracurricular interests, or my academic track record that most resembled the father’s profile? I was pleased that my excess randiness was being put to such good use, providing a solution for couples unable to conceive, but I still felt like a registered bull.
Not once did I think about the possibility that one of the children produced by my virtual liaisons might want to meet me some day. Nor did I imagine that medicine might advance to a point that a deep dive through my DNA and medical history could be relevant to a child’s health decisions. Most importantly, it never entered my mind that the small fee that I pocketed for my “gifts” might be problematic for my offspring, who might question my motives.
Now, 30 years later, I wonder whether remaining anonymous is the right choice. It’s a complex question.
International law is all over the map, and evolving. Germany not only insists that men reveal their identity, it also requires that any offspring has a right to inherit a share of their donor’s estate. The UK, like the US, protects the privacy of the donor, but the UK also prohibits donor compensation. Denmark asks men to choose whether they will be “open” donors (men who agree that they may be contacted when a child turns 18), or “non-contact” donors. Spain insists on privacy. Many countries limit the number of children that a man can father.
By contrast, US law does not impose a limitation on the number of donations, and allows states to regulate clinics. Most have fiercely protected the identity of the donor, in part because all parties have signed a contract that ensures anonymity and no contact. Some contracts now provide that offspring may establish contact at age eighteen if a donor agrees.
Medically, there is an argument for compulsory identification. Although today’s increasingly sophisticated DNA analysis is evolving rapidly, family medical history is still an essential component of good health care practice, as genes can express themselves in many ways.
Biologically, it is now a simple affair for commercial DNA testing services to determine that I have fathered a mini-nation of half-siblings, even if I don’t come forward as a donor. Moreover, donor siblings are forming family networks, pooling their social capital, as millennial tribes will do, and they are gleefully unmasking the mystery men in their lives. So it is likely that over time my genetic contribution will become know to a group of kids, and my identity will be revealed. (Another argument for an open donor option).
Thankfully, there are also several voluntary digital platforms, like Donor Sibling Registry, where donors like me can post some limited personal information, and indicate what level of contact, if any, they are willing to provide. That is certainly a great, initial step forward, for both children and donors.
Emotionally, and psychologically, however, I am wrestling with a very tough set of issues.
First and foremost, there is the impact on my family. The new math of our situation is daunting. Successful artificial insemination may require 1-5 samples for each conception, depending on the technique used. I could biologically be responsible for co-creating 14 -70 children. That’s a breath-taking number and a strong argument for limiting donations.
Then there is the paternity issue. Though I have no legal responsibility, I am a very different guy from the young man I was then. Today, I am a father who takes being a dad very seriously, striving to do everything in my power to ensure our children’s wellbeing. It’s much harder to flip the father switch to off than I understood back then.
I am exceedingly curious to know how my other offspring are. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to know that they are thriving. But what if one of them is not? I would want to help — I’ve certainly done as much for many youth in our community who are not related to me. But would my offspring’s parents want me involved? I need to respect their rights, too.
Furthermore, though a remote paternal figure in this situation, do I ethically have a moral responsibility to come forward, given the studies suggesting that children with donor parents experience a higher incidence of emotional issues and substance abuse, in part because of their inability to frame a complete picture of themselves without some contact with their biological begetter?
Then, there is a question of my own personal motivations three decades ago. I believe they were well-intentioned. I wasn’t in it for the money. $40 a pop does not fund an MBA, and I would like to put my progeny’s minds at ease on that issue. How do I do that without revealing my identity?
There’s another deeper question; a sensitive, personal point: At the time of my donations, I was uncertain whether being a father was in the cards for me. So it was a joy (and obviously a thrill) for me to exercise my biological imperatives knowing full well that it was likely that they would result in reproduction. Is it a crime to want to procreate? I don’t think so. I hope my “humanitarian” work is viewed as a legitimate expression of my love of life and desire to have children, not a whitewash of a much darker impulse: the aggressive, all-consuming, male sex drive.
What then is the responsible thing for me to do?
I think Denmark has gotten it right: Anonymity should be a personal choice, especially for donors and families that want to protect their privacy. Those of us who entered into this arrangement years ago should still have the right to continue down that path.
I suspect, however, that remaining anonymous will not be an option for long, practically speaking, or as a matter of law. It is only a matter of time before a lawsuit affirms the rights of the donor child, irrespective of the terms set forth in a parent-donor contract. I am certain that the courts will eventually find that the physical and mental health of donor offspring will take precedence over other interests, no matter how carefully the contracts have been constructed.
So what to do? Even among well-meaning adults, it’s hard to find a balance among the interests of donors, offspring, their parents, the clinics, and my own family. I believe that coming forward, if it does not take too big a toll on my family, may be the best decision for us. But there is also a good argument for not opening a can of worms. If we do go forward, we will take it slow, in incremental steps.
It will take some time for us to process this. We are currently talking over our situation, and deciding what we should do.
What’s Next? Talk with others. Take action.
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