"A La Fabrique des Peres sur Catalogue" Marie Claire, France.
Karen gave herself a year to find “the” man with whom she wanted to have a child. Twelve months later, still single, this good looking 41 year old psychotherapist pushed open the door to a sperm bank. At the end of 2008 she had consulted the website of Pacific Reproductive Services, a sperm bank in San Francisco which carries the greatest number of non-anonymous donors in America.
“I wanted the biological father of my child to physically resemble my family, so I chose a man who had a similar ethnic background to my paternal grandfather, who had Indian and Portuguese blood. Look at the resemblance to my father when they were kids!” She said pointing to the photos of them both.
“I was 42 years old and I was with a man who didn’t want kids. Today, my daughter is 4 years old,” explains Pamela, 46, a psychiatrist from Berkley, California, who went through IVF. “My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.”
After selecting a donor, consulting a genetic councilor, and having two fertility treatments and embryo implants, Pamela spent €20,000 before becoming pregnant - a cost which can, depending on the number of IVF treatments, climb to €50,000.
According to a 2010 study between 30,000 and 60,000 children have been conceived in America by artificial insemination. The figure is unverifiable because the fertility industry doesn’t file reports with the US health authorities and the American market is unregulated. But the financial statements of the sperm banks - the market leader California Cryobank (CBB) declared profits of 18 million euros in 2011 - and the proliferation of sites and forums on the web attest to the emergence of a real phenomenon. It’s not only infertile couples or lesbians who choose their donors on the sperm banks’ sites’, these days, one third of the clientele are single heterosexual women.
We cast a glance over the shoulder of one woman who has opened an account at CCB to check out the dossiers of around four hundred donors. Nº 12873 for example, whose profile, drafted by the bank, resembles Michael Fassbinder and Viggo Mortensen, 1.75, attractive.... and intelligent. Nº 12867 is described as a hunky good looking guy who works in international development. He looks like Keanu Reeves and John Cusack. In the space of a minute, you can imagine we have found the perfect match. But listen to his voice... too high pitched, we abandon him for nº 13108. Dizzying. This consultation, just like shopping online, is the trigger for the birth of a baby. Access to the colour of his hair and eyes, hight, weight and personality of the donor is free. For $145 we can see photos of him as a child, know his hobbies, his take on life and his medical history. For $250 we can discover the sound of his voice, his facial characteristics, (how wide apart are his eyes, the breadth of his forehead, the size of his nose, the shape of his chin....), and the results of psychological tests, is he extrovert, reserved, etc.?
“Choosing a donor online is like looking for a guy on a dating site,” confirms Kim, a New Yorker, who’s beginning her quest. “There’s a moment when you know you have found the right one. Would you make a child with someone who didn’t please you?”
Given the no limit promise of bio-medicine, people behave like the sorcerers apprentice, weaving their fantasies of perfection into their desire for a child. Like all mothers, the women want the best for their children; health, luck, success socially and educationally.
“The father of Avalia, aged 2, comes from a very educated family”, says her mother, Karen, who is convinced that our way of life affects our DNA. Biologist Jacques Testart - one of the “Dads” of the first French children born after IVF, in 1982 - sees the selection of donors as a form of contemporary eugenics and that the sperm bank’s matching of donors and recipients fails to avoid “biological risks”. This is far from the bank’s promotional argument: where the only one donor is chosen from amongst one or two hundred candidates, after having passed genetic tests and shown an irreproachable medical history over two generations.
In the ultra modern offices of CCB we met a donor who wished to remain anonymous. His discourse on genes followed most of the women we met. “I’m in good health, my body’s not bad, I’d like to transmit a good biological basis to the children. And what’s more I’ve got a good sense of humour, which is perhaps genetic.”
Like the way Avail’s donor loves animals, as she does? Or is that why sociable Harley’s donor worked in communications? Her mother Sherrie, who wanted to bring up her three children alone, believes so.
For Alice Ruby, Director of The Sperm Bank of California (TSBC), more than being perfect, women dream of a child who carries the air the family with them.
The US Food and Drug Administration, the regulator of medicines and therefor the bio-medical industry, does not fix a limit of the number of children born to the same donor. But here in France, sperm donation is governed by the 1994 bio-ethic law, which must given anonymously and for free. On the other side of the Atlantic a sperm donation pays $100 per vial, rising to $500 if the donor has a PHD. And whilst the anonymity of the donor is vigorously guarded in most European countries, it remains an option in the US.
“We are the first to put in place a program to reveal the identity of the donors”, says Alice Ruby. 30% of all those aged between 25 and 30 years old, who were conceived using sperm from our bank, wish to have details of their donor.”
“Am I being selfish?” Asks Pamela, who chose an anonymous donor for her daughter, feeling that not having a father would be less painful than having an absent one. The study, “My Daddy’s Name is Donor”, reveals that while two thirds of offspring wished to know their donors, almost half were disturbed that money played a role in their conception.
Laurene, a criminal lawyer in Berkley, California, went through the menopause at 25. Brady was born in 1996 after a sperm and egg donation. Laurene regrets that her son, unlike Bridie, her daughter, born in 1999, would have no chance to know his progenitor. “It was seventeen years ago and we didn’t have the choice; it was anonymous or nothing.”
The children don’t show much interest in knowing, “We don’t think of him as our father, it was just a donation.” affirmed the young man, impassively. And when we asked them what did their father do, both of them replied ”It’s over”, it’s that simple. Yet the family is registered on the internet site, “The Donor Sibling Registry”, which connects children with their donors, identifiable thanks to a number issued at the time.”Each year, in June, we meet up with three other children who share Bridie’s donor,” says Laurene, happily.
Canadian documentary maker Barry Stevens, himself the progeny of a sperm donation and who has made films on the subject, calculates that he has between five hundred and a thousand half brothers and sisters. Even though some sperm banks, like CCB, limit the number of families to twenty five or thirty each donor can have, there is nothing to stop them selling their sperm to other organizations. The absence of regulation is concerning because the practice accelerates the risk of transmitting genetic diseases and involuntary incest. Economist Deborah Spar, author of “The Baby Business”, points out that in the US, the second hand car market is better regulated than the marketing of procreation, which should sound an alarm. “No doubt legislation would be complex and difficult, but it will have to be done.”
In the meantime women who make the choice to have a child alone are torn between guilt and fulfillment.
“What other choice do we have?” asked Laurene. “Men want young women, women want a career, and then they have difficulties finding a partner. Look at the values which govern our society, we do what we can”.
And in the absence of a legal framework, what we wish.....