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Seed Demons

Coming to grips with being a sperm donor


Published February 23, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

She hit me up for sperm over a plate of eggs. A few years ago I was eating breakfast with an ex-girlfriend who was single at the time and losing sleep over the loud, incessant ticking of her biological clock. She dropped the bomb as I was stuffing a forkful of huevos rancheros into my mouth. "So, if I'm not married by the time I'm 36, would you be willing to help me have a child?"

"Sure," I replied, with as much thought as I would have given a waitress asking to warm my coffee.

My ex was stunned. "Yes? Just like that?"

Why not? She's a dear friend whom I'd once considered marrying. What's one more romp for old times' sake?

But before I could even swallow, she was talking about holiday visits and day-care options, whether or not to spank, and whether my folks would be offended if there weren't a bris. She'd seen a film on ritual circumcision in an anthropology class and no way was anyone going to "mutilate" her son.

My pulse raced into the red zone as it dawned on me that she was asking me to be not quite a daddy but more than an anonymous shot in the dark. Beyond the clinical moniker "biological father," our language doesn't even have a word for what I'd be.

Why should it? Throughout most of recorded history men have scattered their genes to the four winds like so many dandelion seeds carried on a summer breeze. It's only recently that men have begun to care where those seeds take root.

As a single guy with no children, I was faced with the possibility that my hasty generosity might require me to put up -- or more accurately, put out -- not just for one night, but for a lifetime of quasi-parenting. I felt obliged to take a whack at the ethical conundrums of becoming a sperm donor.

Ethical conundrums? you might chortle. Like what? Whether to use your right hand or your left? You stop by a neighborhood sperm bank, grab a specimen cup and the latest issue of Barely Legal, liquidate your assets, then leave your deposit with the teller on your way out. End of story.

Mechanics aside, it's not that easy. On the one hand, the idea of a little pooper walking the planet and getting nothing more from me than a strand of my double helix didn't sit well. On the other hand, being a part-time, long-distance, faux daddy wasn't exactly ideal, either. I needed advice.

The old standby for ethical trouble-shooting -- the Internet -- was only minimally helpful. From a donor's point of view, most of what's out there is about protecting your anonymity and being free of disease. And a Google search on "ethics"+ "sperm donation" turns up subjects ranging from the odd to the icky.

For example, is it ethical for the estranged wife of a man killed in a car accident to extract his semen for use in "ART," or Artificial Reproductive Technology? Like our society doesn't have enough trouble with deadbeat dads.

Another interesting artifact I came across was a chart, prepared by the Ethics Committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, entitled "potential intrafamilial collaborative reproductive arrangements among first-degree relatives." In laymen's terms, how do you use ART to start a family whose theme song isn't "Dueling Banjos?" Chilling, but not relevant for me. My potential mate was neither a sister nor a first cousin.

A more relevant topic was if and when to tell the little ones how they were conceived. There's a prevailing sentiment these days that all humans have a fundamental interest, if not the right, to know their genetic heritage. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine warns that cloaking a child's biological origins in a shroud of mystery can cause a lifetime of confusion and poor self-esteem. Not to mention waves of uneasiness whenever someone asks, "Who's your daddy?"

One ethical issue I assumed had already been put to bed was limiting a donor's turns at bat. I have a friend -- I'll call him Jan -- who put himself through college as a seed spreader. Jan is the Aryan Nation's wet dream: tall, blond, blue-eyed, and built like a Calvin Klein underwear model. Jan won a gold medal in breast stroke at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. In the gene pool, he was also a world-class competitor. Prospective mothers were practically lining up at his front door, turkey basters in hand, waiting for his swimmers.

But Jan's semen peddling came at a price. At first, his girlfriend was supportive. She reasoned that he was "performing a great social service," although she was less than thrilled about being denied sex before donation days to increase his sperm count. When they got more serious, however, she became jealous and he shut off the spigot.

Years later, and only days after their second child was born, the couple got a phone call from Jan's brother, who was also an avid sperm donor. Apparently, through a series of well-intentioned but unethical confidentiality breaches, he'd seen photos of Jan's children and told Jan's wife. Getting confirmation that Jan actually had other offspring was an emotional blow. It not only raised fears that her kids might one day shack up with a genetic half-sibling or first cousin; she also worried that because these other mothers didn't know Jan or his quirky sense of humor, they might not "get" his kids.

Naively, I assumed a one-time donor would face fewer complications. Not so. About a year ago, an unmarried friend of mine began talking with a lesbian couple about fathering their child. For nearly five months they negotiated the legal, ethical and parental terms of the arrangement: What religion would the child be? How much time would he be allowed with the child? What would the child call him? What would happen if one or both mothers got sick, died or moved away? What if they changed their minds about his parental participation? Each question, it seemed, opened a rabbit hole leading to 10 others.

Frequently overshadowed in the conversations were my friend's own concerns: Among other things, how did he feel about giving away his first-born child? And why did the "specialness" of a first-born child matter to him, anyway? How would a future partner feel about the arrangement? As he put it, "I had to consider the feelings of someone I hadn't even met yet."

When he finally agreed to do it -- against the advice of nearly all his friends and family -- the couple informed him that they'd chosen another donor. He was crushed. Suffice it to say, the experience was anticlimactic on many levels.

Likewise, my own progenitive proffer came and went without consummation. My ex-girlfriend eventually married and conceived a child the old-fashioned way. It's probably just as well. Though it doubtless would have been a rewarding experience, when faced with the potential headaches, I was no longer in the mood.