June 18, 2010
"Where is sperm donor 2035?"
By David Lapp
On this Father’s Day, Lindsay Greenawalt, 25, is still searching for her biological father. “Are you xytex donor 2035?” she asks on her blog, “Confessions of a Cryokid.”
Greenawalt was conceived with the help of an anonymous donor from the Georgia sperm bank Xytex. She knows donor 2035 was born on Feb. 12, 1961, has green eyes, brown hair, is Baptist, and was a senior in college in 1982 when he began selling his sperm.
But she doesn’t know who he is. On a blog post, “Happy Birthday to my father,” she wonders, “Does he want to be found?? Does he want to look??”
Every year, an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 women conceive a child through sperm donation. Of course, for every woman who conceives through donor insemination, there is a man who sells his sperm, and in most cases in the U.S., does it anonymously.
But what sperm banks regularly fail to adequately communicate to these men — usually college students who, no doubt, are looking to make an extra buck — is that they are becoming fathers to as many as dozens of children. Just as they try to sanitize reality by saying that men who sell their sperm for as much as $1,000 a month are “donating,” so they obscure the reality that “donors” are biological fathers by pretending that they’re merely altruists helping a family out.
As a young man, that doublespeak makes me angry: It expects men to care less about the new life they are co-creating and it cheapens the awesome, life-changing responsibility that is fatherhood. The easy money aside, I do not doubt that some men may have genuinely good motives and just want to “give the gift of life.”
But this is a human life we are talking about, not simply blood or even a kidney. If it’s true that human persons are not mere spirits who happen to be encased in bodies, but rather a dynamic unity of body and spirit, then biology does matter. But the language of “donor” trivializes all that.
Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. After all, the typical donor will likely never meet his child; he only supplies the sperm at the sperm bank. Besides, as a former donor put it in a letter to prospective donors in a California Cryobank ad, “I could never hold a candle to [the person’s] real parents, the people who raised and loved [him or her] from infancy.” Maybe it is love, not just biology, that makes a family. Maybe donor 2035 is just a donor.
But there’s a contradiction here. Biology clearly matters for many of the would-be parents who choose to use donor insemination rather than, say, adopt. As Olivia Pratten, who was herself donor-conceived, says at the blog FamilyScholars.org, “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.”
According to a new study, My Daddy’s Name is Donor, biology also matters for the children who are conceived this way. Released by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future, the study surveyed 485 young adults ages 18-45 who were conceived through sperm donation. It found that two-thirds believe they have a right to know their biological parents; 44 percent agree, “It is wrong to deliberately conceive a fatherless child;” and 48 percent agree, “When I see friends with their biological fathers and mothers, it makes me feel sad.”
Donor-conceived young adults do not speak with one voice, but a substantial proportion of them are saddened because they’ve been denied their biological father.
Of course, many donor-conceived adults express great love for their parents. And I’m certainly not suggesting that parents who conceive a child in this way cherish their children less than biological parents.
But if biology matters for would-be parents, shouldn’t it also matter for the men selling sperm? As a man, just because my biology allows me to more easily remove myself from the link of responsibility that issues from human life does not mean that that link does not exist. The instinct of most male animals is to leave their offspring. The dignity of the human father is to freely love and commit to his children.
What should we do? For starters, our vocabulary should reflect reality. Tangled Webs UK, an advocacy group for persons conceived through artificial insemination, suggests the following: “‘Donors’ are more accurately described as ‘biological parents,’ ” and “Where ‘donors’ are to be distinguished from recipients the term ‘conception-absent parent’ can be used.” Adopting this language would show that we expect men to take seriously the tie between child and biological father. Also, we should follow the lead of countries like Britain, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands and ban anonymous gamete donation.
We can no longer deny the voices of people like Lindsay Greenawalt. The question is whether our culture will continue the doublespeak: blithely assuring the man who walks into the sperm bank that he is no more than donor 2035 — and thus shielding him from the children who long to know their father.
David Lapp is a research associate at the Institute for American Values in New York.