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medically speaking

Honey…It Seems I May Have Fathered At Least 74 Kids… (sperm donor junkie say what?!)

Donor Sibling Registry Logo

Image via Wikipedia

I wonder if anyone else would find it as ironic as I did, that as I wore a The Kids Are Alright promotional movie t-shirt  last week, a new documentary on the topic of sperm donors came on television?!

(In The Kids Are All Right, lesbian couple, played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. Have two teenage children who track down their sperm donor biological father and insist on forging a connection with him.

My laughter turned to immediate shock after I sauntered back across the room, grabbed the remote (I just dropped), and clicked the guide button; revealing the full title to be:

Style Network Presents:  74 Kids, and More on the Way: Style Presents Sperm Donor

The latest installment of Style Expose programming provocatively explored the emotional world of sperm donors and their offspring.

“In this documentary, you’ll get to know Ben—a man who learns his donation has produced more than 74 children (with more on the way)—and two half-sisters from different parts of the country who are meeting face-to-face for the first time. With help from the Donor Sibling Registry, these individuals and more are searching, connecting and forging new definitions of family.”

I sat down, stupefied. 74 kids!? Are you kidding me? I dated a guy once that was seriously interested in the monetary incentive of repeat sperm donation. I’d apparently missed the first few minutes where his motivation most likely was explained. I’d instead joined in when Ben was explaining to his fiancé over dinner the biological facts of his parental past. (And maybe why there was a camera crew with them at dinner!)

Let me introduce you into the wonderful world of sperm donation. The use of the word wonderful is debatable, but it’s no less a topic worthy of discussion.

The concept of sperm donation, especially in western countries, is for the most part, an accepted procedure. What once started as an experiment that brought forth an alternative method that allowed heterosexual couples to produce children. Its sense morphed into an almost place common course of action used by single women, and single/ coupled lesbians.

Donor insemination (DI) was in effect unknown to the public prior to 1954. That’s when the first comprehensive account of the process was published. (In The British Medical Journal) Before that, the only known instance of it was reported in a 1909 letter (appearing in the American journal Medical World), that documented an event that seemingly took place 25 years early at the Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College. The author of the letter, Addison Davis Hard, participated in the event and he claimed the following: Professor William Pancoast, after having performed several tests to decide the cause behind the reproductive difficulties of a Quaker wife and much older husband, concluded that the husband was sterile. Without notifying the couple beforehand, the professor discussed the case with his medical students, and acted upon suggestion that semen should be collected from the “best looking” member of the class, and used to inseminate the woman. Following the successful impregnation, the husband was informed, and at his request, his wife never was. The result of this experiment was a son for the couple and what became known as the first child by donor insemination.

Few doctors performed donor insemination privately, and only fresh sperm was used. 1953 the first successful insemination by way of frozen sperm was reported. Records of the donors were kept to alleviate them from being held legally responsible for the child.

At inception, this impregnation process wasn’t well received. It provoked quite the heated public debate. Initially condemned by the Lambeth Conference, and approved as a criminal offense by a Parliamentary Commission. The Italian Pope declared DI a sin, and sought all participants to be sent to prison.

In 1954 the US Supreme Court of Cook County, enacted a ruling DI that was “contrary to public policy and good morals, and considered adultery on the mother’s part.” And in 1963 a US court upheld the stance with a ruling that a DI child was illegitimate because the sperm donor was not married to the child’s mother. 1964 though because the year that Georgia became the first state to pass statute legitimizing DI conceived children on the condition that both the husband and wife consented in writing.

“In 1973 the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, and a year later, the American Bar Association, approved the Uniform Parentage Act. This act provides that if a wife is artificially inseminated with donor semen under a physician’s supervision, and with her husband’s consent, the husband is treated for legal purposes as if he were the natural father of the DI child. This law has been followed by similar legislation in most states of the US.  In 1975, the first commercial sperm bank, Xytex Corporation, was opened in Augusta, GA”

Additional laws around the world included the UK creation of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990, by the Warnock Committee Report.

“This provided for a system of licensing for fertility clinics and procedures. It also provided that, where a man donates sperm at a licensed clinic in the UK and his sperm is used at a UK clinic to impregnate a woman, the man is not legally responsible for the resulting child. The 1990 Act also established a central UK register of donor births to be maintained by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (the ‘HFEA’), a supervisory body established by the Act. Following the Act, where any woman had a child by a donor as the result of insemination or IVF using his sperm at a licensed UK clinic, details of the child and of its biological father are required to recorded.”

Sperm can be donated anonymously (identity never to be given), non- anonymously (at a point it can be provided). All recipients are typically given limited information that includes height, weight, eye, skin and hair color. The main reason for anonymity being that recipients believe it would be easiest (aka best) if the donor is out of the picture.

Sperm bank generally undertake a costly number of medical and scientific checks to make sure that sufficient quantity and quality sperm is produced, and that is healthy and disease free. (Good to know they don’t let just any gross person give it up) The sperm also has to withstand the freezing and thawing process necessary for storing and quarantine. To be cost efficient clinics may use the same donor to produce a number of pregnancies in a number of different women. (So this is where the drama starts happening…hmmm…so save a few bucks. Tsk, tsk, tsk.)

Referring back to thedocumentary that inspired this article, there is the curious fact that the number of children permitted to be born from a single donor varies according to law and practice. The number of children a donor can father depends on where he lives and where his sperm is sent. (Now whose bright idea was that!?)

Several countries, e.g. Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Britain, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand only allow non-anonymous sperm donation. When the United Kingdom ended anonymous sperm donation in 2005, and they saw a surprising spike in the numbers of sperm donors. (Now that is surprising…) But when Sweden banned anonymous sperm donation way back in 1980, they saw an immediate significant drop. That brought forth a wait period and led many Swedish sperm recipients to travel to Denmark for insemination. The changing laws created a shortage of donors in some countries and they saw a market for what is called “fertility tourists”, and aggressively presented their sperm banks around the world.

There’s something you don’t hear everyday, that have a “sperm shortage” Korea’s sperm shortage is related to their Bioethics Law prohibiting the selling and buying of sperm between clinics. And in Canada it’s against the law to pay people for donating it. (good law!) Recipients who wish to have the procedure done must actually buy it from the United States and have it imported in.

What’s really interesting is that even though there are limits on the use of sperm by a particular donor to a defined number of families, there are no limits on the numbers of second or subsequent siblings that maybe be produced.  So for example: a woman wishes to have more children by sperm donation so her children will be full biological siblings. Many sperm banks offer a service of storing sperm for future pregnancies. Some donors produce substantial numbers of children simply because they donate through different clinics, sperm can be sold or exported to different jurisdictions, and so on and so forth.

Cryos International is the world’s largest sperm bank. The Danish company has led to 10,000 pregnancies (more everyday I’m sure…) around the world. Sperm banking there has become a powerhouse industry for several reasons since their operation began in 1987. They have a high success rate in producing initial pregnancies and offspring; its culture, they are famously secular and sexually liberal and upholds uncomplicated views of sperm donation. Plus their and its laws continue to protect a donor’s anonymity. (Meaning forever….)”

University students routinely make deposits there for the extra money.  And it’s frozen and shipped to as many as 40 countries; including Spain, Paraguay, Kenya, Hong Kong and New York. One man, a Cryos client whose sperm was donated to several countries, has fathered 101 children (2004 article), a fact he’s reported unaware of.

Due to the lack of unofficial complete documentation, the only available statistics are an educated guess that each year an estimated 30,000-60,000 children are born in America via artificial insemination.

“Neither the fertility industry nor any other entity is required to report on these statistics. The practice is not regulated, and the children’s health and well-being are not tracked. In adoption, prospective parents go through a painstaking, systematic review, including home visits and detailed questions about their relationship, finances, and even their sex life. Any red flags, and a couple might not get the child. With donor conception, the state requires absolutely none of that. The effects of such a system on the people conceived this way have been largely unknown.”

Now we get into what I’m most curious about, the effects on the people brought into the world this way.  The kids in the Kids are Alright movie handled it well enough. But one mother who has two kids by Ben in the documentary was definitely concerned about how her children, who immediately took to calling him dad (well, they were like 3 and 6), would react to him disappearing from their lives. Even though he didn’t come there to parent them, he came to say hello to them because she asked him.

A few organizations have coordinated studies provide a bit more information on the topic. A study, released by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future, focused on how young-adult donor offspring—compared to those raised in adoptive or biological homes—made sense of their identities, family experiences, and approach to reproductive technologies. The study of 18- to 45-year-olds included 485 conceived by sperm donation, 562 adopted as infants, and 563 raised by their biological parents. Sperm donation proved to raise a host of complex issues.

“Two-thirds of adult donor offspring agreed with the statement “My sperm donor is half of who I am.” Nearly half were disturbed that money was involved in their conception. More than half say that when they see someone who resembles them, they wonder if they are related.

Donor offspring were twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They were more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.

As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families.

Nearly half of donor offspring, and more than half of adoptees, agree,

“It is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child.””

One in every 100 babies in the U.S. is created through some form of in vitro fertilization.

One in three donor conceived children want information about their biological father.

Approximately 60% of requesters are female. Approximately 40% of requests are from people raised by single women, 30% from those raised by lesbian couples, and 20% from those raised by heterosexual couples. Approximately 60% of them are of the opinion that all sperm donations should include identity release.

The Top 3 Reasons Children Search ForTheir Donors were: curiosity about donor characteristics, wanting to meet the donor and medical reasons

The law usually (few cases where they weren’t, like this really crazy case in Ireland) protects sperm donors from being financially responsible for children produced from their donations, and usually provides that sperm donors have no rights over the children which they produce.

Parents struggle with disclosure, which makes sense. I’m sure it’s not unlike explaining to your child they were the product of rape, or that their adopted.

The Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) was created in September 2000 by Wendy Kramer and her son Ryan. Certain that other donor offspring would have the same curiosity as Ryan about his genetic origins – yet also knowing that sadly, no public outlet existed for mutual consent contact between people born from anonymous sperm donation.

Several thousand people check the site regularly. DSR averages more than 10,000 unique visitors to the site each month and is a worldwide organization.

The focus is to assist individuals who are seeking to make mutually desired contact with others with whom they share genetic ties. This may included their own, or their child’s half-siblings, their own or their child’s sperm or egg donor, or their own genetic offspring.

(Why does it say sadly…?? She couldn’t find information about an anonymous donor…hmmm…I wonder why…)

“Honestly, 10 years from now it’s not going to matter,” Patrick Gulbrandson (whose wife was impregnated with their daughter by use donor sperm when they were found unable to conceive) says. “More than likely some of her classmates are going to be IVF babies.”

He’s pretty flippant on the subject. Are you? I’ll end here with this gem of a tidbit: The United States has had an increase in sperm donors during the late 2000s recession, with donors finding the monetary compensation more favorable.

(featured picture image credit here)

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About maggie.

Maggie Barnes is a nonprofit and for profit business content specialist / social media consultant; and social sciences web writer interested in everything from psychology and sexuality, to technology, race, and economics. She is passionate about good communication and information accessibility.

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