The Sperm Trade

How would you feel if your father was “Mystery Masturbator 150?” Sophie Walker investigates

Sunday just passed was Father’s Day, a day to tell your dad that, on the whole, he’s done a good job, and that you’re very grateful. But the majority of people around the world take for granted the fact that the man who brought them up is their real father, or that they know who their biological father is at all

If you are a donor-conceived child, you may or may not know your biological parent. But this might not be your choice. The extent to which individuals differ in their approach to making this choice, is very much determined by different legislative systems in different countries.

In the USA the availability of information about donors, and the reportage of donor births is not fully comprehensive. Unlike in the UK where everything is recorded through the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), law does not regulate donor sperm in the USA and there is no central authority to collate donor information. In the USA, guidelines only recommend 25 live births per population of 850,000. In the UK a single donation can only be used in 10 different families.

A new film called Donor Unknown has just been released about the story of JoEllen Marsh, a young girl in search of “Donor 150”- her biological father, who donated at a Cryobank in California in the 1980’s. Over 60,000 children have been born from sperm donations from that Cryobank alone since then, but the stories of those children are often overlooked. It seems that in America, the right of infertile or same-sex couples to have a child is perhaps more significant than the rights of the child themselves, to learn about their past, their half-siblings and their real parents.

So, JoEllen was left to make one of the most poignant discoveries of her life on her own. The documentary follows her journey, as she finds her dad Jeffrey and her half siblings via an online donor registry. It explores the huge web of moral, scientific and generational issues surrounding Donor Insemination (DI) and how these are shaping the future of the lives involved.

The director Jerry Rothwell said the idea had an immediate appeal. “I was drawn to this story because it seemed to me that, through an astonishing set of coincidences, Jeffrey and his children were dealing with some of the big human dilemmas posed by the rapid advances in reproductive technology. There are two kinds of journey in the film: those of the children looking for their genetic inheritance, and that of Jeffrey discovering a new family of strangers. Both are pioneering new kinds of family connection.”

The technology of communication fused with the technology of reproduction has generated the new role of the Western parent

Indeed, it is a 21st century family tale that requires you to embrace this new breed of family with some conceptual lenience. However, donor insemination has existed for just over 100 years, rendering this type of family not so new at all. What is new, is the openness of the way donor conceived children can discover who their biological parents are, and develop a relationship with them.

In the UK, the law that donors remain anonymous was lifted in 2005 so a child can find the identity of their donor when they turn 18. In the US however, donors are still anonymous which means that a child’s non-biological parents do not have to even tell their child about their donor. JoEllen’s two mums obviously told their daughter, but this appears to be unusual.

The dynamic between parents, siblings and children who do not share the biological links of a conventional nuclear family is being radically redefined. The film The Kids are Alright released in 2010 was the first mainstream Hollywood film to address the story of two children living with lesbian mothers, and who seek their donor father. Similarly to “Donor Unknown”, the children are a lot more open to embracing a relationship with their father, whilst the approached donor’s are often more apprehensive and reluctant to develop a bond with someone they chose not to know many years before.

It seems a fascinating yet tender exploration of the extraordinary power of genetic connections and whether they are necessary for a child’s emotional and psychological development. Indeed, so too is the sibling connection in which they discover they share similar features and traits; the way their tuck their hair behind their ears, how their eyebrows grow or the shape of their big toes. Is it nature or nurture that conditions us to inherit certain behavioural traits, personality types and ways of thinking?

The way we understand parenthood in Western culture is very much grounded on the assumption that parents have a certain amount of control over what their children know about the world, what they are exposed to, and how they are exposed. The dominance of the media and technology has started to consume any control parents once had, and this has had an incontrovertible role in the way donor conceived children build a new set of relationships with their parents.

The technology of communication fused with the technology of reproduction has generated the new role of the Western parent. To some, notably conservative religious folk (to whom the use of sperm donors is highly illegal), this is most definitely a destructive move for our culture. To others, it signifies how a liberal attitude and careful application of science’s cryogenic progress prevents infertility and homosexuality from being a restriction to parenthood.

Jeffrey stands with his pigeons in front of his RV. Donor Unknown was released on the 3rd of June.

Rothwell thinks that, “biomedical science is the thing that’s most going to change our world in our lifetimes. I think it’s really going to change our sense of who we are. In the last couple of decades there have been huge leaps in the technologies available to help people have children – and many people who otherwise might not have been able to become parents have benefitted from that. At the same time there’s been huge advances our ability to anticipate and screen for genetic disorders – and to predict characteristics more generally. My view is that as these technologies converge, and we’re offered more choices about screening and selection, there needs to be a wider social debate and understanding about what we’re doing.”

Dr Allan Pacey from the Department of Reproductive and Developmental Medicine at the University of Sheffield agrees that there are serious consequences to the amount of control parents now have in knowing the genetic profile of their child.

“I suspect that most recipients of donor sperm select their donor on the basis of the characteristics they would like the father to have, rather than because of how they would like a donor conceived son or daughter to have them. However, if they don’t then they need to be made aware that genetics does not work this way. As the marketing man says in the film “Ben Affleck’s children don’t look like Ben Affleck!”

Rothwell’s last film, Heavy Load was about people with learning disabilities so for him, the premise of whether it’s a good thing for a society to try to eliminate Down’s Syndrome, for example, heavily informed his cinematic perspective. He says though, “I completely understand why any individual potential parent would avoid it if they had the choice”.

For Rothwell, the main concern of Donor Unknown is the issue of whether we want to leave the development of reproductive technologies to commercial forces. He is suspect of “interests tending to lie in maximising the numbers of donors and achieving successful pregnancies, rather than the longer term welfare of the child. So for example in the US there has been strong opposition from the sperm and egg donation industry to legislation around the right of the child to know the identity of the donor.”

Indeed, although only expenses are covered in the UK for sperm donation, the US offers much greater financial incentive. Jeffrey was paid $25 (and later £$80) a go, and this was something he turned to survive in the 80’s, but as a model his attractive profile was popular. Now in his fifties, he lives in an RV on Venice Beach, and his closest relationships are with his dogs, and a recently adopted pigeon with a broken wing.

Clearly for Jeffrey, donating sperm was a means to an end. And not necessarily one he was proud of. For all the laughs about donation, it is still shrouded in secrecy and shame for many. Hilary Durman, producer of the film, from RedBird Media Productions, was acutely conscious of “balancing the rich and complex individual stories and experiences against the need for clarity and simplicity in the narrative. There are lots of sensitivities and it’s been really important to be responsive this.”

Ultimately, knowing the truth about your biological past is a personal issue, and should be a personal choice. But if a parent is simply someone who protects, cares and loves you, then being genetically connected to them doesn’t determine the quality of that love and care. Indeed, being a biological parent does not necessitate the quality of a parent-child relationship and the future of reproduction looks to push this natural correlation further apart still. As shown in Donor Unknown though, no matter how much nurture accounts for, we can never escape the prescriptive recipe that is our genetic make-up of DNA. And as JoEllen discovers, that may not be such a bad thing after all.

2 comments

  1. Much is said of rights, the “right” to anonymity, to have a family, to an alternative lifestyle. The rights of donor conceived children are paramount and it must be hoped that “Donor Dads” would wish to play a role when the child comes of age. Currently in the UK that is 18 but there is a strong and valid argument that it should be 16.

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  2. On the subject of lowering the age for children of ‘Donor Dads’ I also feel very strongly as a Gay Rights supporter that the age of consent for homosexual males should be lowered from sixteen to fourteen years.

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