Brought to you by the students of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
By Caitlin Dunn
“Come on, it’s easy money.”
“Do you really need the money?”
“I don’t need it, but I was hoping to get a few things for myself soon. A new mattress, maybe a better TV.”
“Look, I don’t feel comfortable doing this for money. I don’t feel like you should do this just for the payoff. It’s way too significant.”
“What, you don’t think the world needs more of me?”
Reproductive medicine and assisted reproductive techniques were not exactly at the forefront of my mind at twenty-two. I was in my final year of college and somewhat seriously dating Nathan (not his real name). Fresh out of school and looking for something to supplement his income, he happened upon an ad for sperm donors. Nathan had already started the first phase of becoming a donor, the interview and paperwork process, when he told me about his plan. Before beginning the donation program, sperm banks typically require several interviews where the donor is screened for health problems, hereditary issues, and personal traits like attractiveness and interests. Some sperm banking companies who cater to an exclusive clientele have strict requirements for who they will accept into their donor program. The bank where Nathan interviewed excluded men who were not college-educated, men who were too short, and men who had ever partnered with another man. Several banks boast of donor acceptance rates lower than the acceptance rates of Harvard or Yale, aided in part by the supranormal sperm counts they require from their donors. The vaguely eugenicist approach was off-putting, but Nathan preferred the more selective bank because (of course) they paid more.
“I can’t believe you’re upset about this. I could make an extra ten thousand this year.”
“What if your kids find you someday?”
“They won’t. They will never know who I am.”
“You can’t guarantee that they won’t find you. Are you ready for that?”
Sperm banks fiercely protect donor information because their profits depend on it. Most men who donate sperm through banks are not interested in a relationship with the children born from their sperm. Much fewer men would donate sperm if donors were not assured of their anonymity. However, websites have popped up that track donors by the unique identification numbers that are given to them by the sperm banks. Half-siblings use the websites to meet each other and build relationships. Some children of sperm donors have used the profile information given to them by the bank (which can even include the donor’s baby pictures) to track down their biological father. The websites have also been useful to compile health histories of genetically related people. In cases where donor children have developed genetic diseases such as ADPKD, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and Marfan’s syndrome, the courts have forced sperm banks to reveal detailed family histories of donors. Websites run by families who have taken part in sperm donation also revealed a scary truth--some donors had fathered fifty to a hundred children. The United States has no legal limit on the number of children that can be produced from one donor’s sperm. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends that donors stay under twenty-five children per large metropolitan area to limit the chances of accidental incest and the spread of rare genetic mutations. If I had progressed further into my relationship with Nathan, our children might have had hundreds of half-siblings. I wasn’t the least bit interested in having the specter of accidental incest hanging over my teenage children’s dates.
“They’re not really my kids anyway. I’m going to help people who want to become parents. How can you say no to that?”
“I don’t like the idea of someone else carrying your child. Besides, how would you tell our children that they have siblings out there?”
“Why are you acting like this will affect our family?”
“Because I’m not going to turn the kids away if they find you.”
According to my internet research, most women in relationships with men come down firmly on one side or the other when it comes to their partner donating sperm. Slate’s Dear Prudence and many smaller advice columns have tackled the issue. The most common complaints from women are concerns about their partners’ biological children connecting with them later in life, or feelings of jealousy at the thought of someone else raising their partner’s child. Many women expressed sorrow that their partner might have a child that they would never get to meet or have a hand in raising. Nathan and I debated all of these points and more for several weeks as he continued the testing process.
Though I have reservations about the companies who profit from the sale of genetic material, I continue to respect sperm donors and the families who benefit from assisted reproductive techniques. Assisted reproductive techniques, like many other medical procedures, are fraught with complex emotions. Now that I am a medical student, I am grateful for my experience with Nathan because it has given me a view into the uncomfortable and irrational feelings that accompany questions of genetic material and bodily integrity, as well as the search for knowledge and community that many patients undergo when they are in unfamiliar medical territory.
Copyright © 2012 Mentis
About the Author:
Caitlin Dunn is a second-year medical student