More than 30 years ago, a millionaire eugenicist created the first sperm-donor catalog. Its purpose was to entice married women with infertile husbands into joining his scheme to create genetically superior humans. (You can read more about this in David Plotz’s Slate series “Seed” and in his book The Genius Factory.) Today, lesbian women make up a large segment of the market for donated sperm. But, as far as I’m aware, the lesbian community has never had a public discussion about the troubling, eugenics-influenced aspects of donor selection. Instead, we’ve quietly gone along with the assumptions of an industry that originated in heterosexual women’s desire to find a visual match for their infertile husbands, so as to keep their children’s origins a secret.
Prospective parents naturally want to give their children the best possible start in life. For most couples, this means regular ob-gyn visits, abstaining from caffeine and alcohol, and looking after the mother-to-be’s health. But for those who need donor sperm in order to conceive, the desire to do right by baby takes on a whole other dimension. In the quest for the finest available male gametes, impersonal demographic tables are consulted, options are weighed, and prejudices about what makes one person better than the next are amplified.
Browsing through online donor listings, it quickly becomes apparent that certain types of men simply don’t show up or are very rarely included in the offerings. Most sperm banks have height requirements and will reject anyone who falls below the cutoff. They also tend to impose a strict BMI range, and there’s a pronounced preference, verging on a requirement, for the men to hold a bachelor’s degree or be in the process of obtaining one.
The reasoning behind such standards isn’t nefarious. It takes a significant investment to recruit and test male sperm donors, which means sperm banks are highly motivated to choose men who will appeal to their clients. But the question of what kind of donors clients prefer is influenced by the way they are presented. If the first traits you see are height, weight, ethnicity, and scholastic achievement, those factors can’t help but take on an outsized role in the selection process. Those customers who’d rather base their choice on something more personal—the essays donors write about themselves, for instance—must first wade through the sort of information that is most likely to amplify unconscious biases about race, appearance, and class background.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Sperm banks generally provide demographic information for free. They then charge a fee for full profiles, which include the personal essays, after a client has narrowed down her search. But it would be just as easy to provide clients with the personal essays first, and then charge extra for the demographic data. Another option would be a system that gave the customer a choice about what is revealed for free and what needs to be paid for: personal essays or demographics.
This hasn’t happened because customers have thus far been satisfied with the way their choices are presented. But, at least in the case of lesbians, they shouldn’t be. For lesbian couples, there’s no getting around the fact that children aren’t the offspring of both parents, so closely matching physical characteristics has little relevance. Instead, lesbians ought to seek a fuller picture of the donor while ignoring irrelevancies that could prejudice them. Personal essays would be a great alternative starting place for women who think there’s more to a man than how tall he is and whether he squeaked out a BA in communications.
While exact numbers are hard to come by, it’s clear that lesbians make up a huge portion of the market for donor sperm. A representative from one large, mainstream tissue bank told me that 40 percent of its clients are lesbian, and at least one sperm bank has made helping lesbian families conceive its primary mission. At Pacific Reproductive Services, which proudly advertises its lesbian ownership, the preferences of lesbian clients have already had an impact on the way donors are chosen. Since lesbians tend to be upfront about their children’s origins, they’re more open to the possibility that the kids might one day wish to contact their genetic fathers. This has led PRS to better serve its client base by focusing on recruiting as many “willing to be known” donors as possible—that is, men who have declared their willingness to be contacted by adult children. Founder Sherron Mills also told me that the geneticist at PRS had convinced her that diversity in ethnic background can make for healthier children. “Mix up your child!” she said, “When you dilute those genes, you have a healthier child.”
Like all would-be parents, lesbians want their children to be healthy and happy. But, like other parents, we also have fears and biases and insecurities that can be amplified if they go unquestioned. No one who’s been to a college campus could seriously believe that the possession of a bachelor’s degree is a reliable indicator of intelligence—and yet, when you see a BS stacked up next to a high-school diploma, with little other information available, it’s hard to resist choosing the former over the latter. And although greater genetic diversity can make for healthier offspring, it may be hard to resist the subtle pull toward donors of familiar racial or ethnic backgrounds. Relying heavily on superficial appearance may have made sense for heterosexual couples seeking donated sperm three decades ago. For modern lesbian parents, those physical descriptions come with a lot of unnecessary baggage. It’s time the lesbian community started unpacking.