While the Patriots beat The Falcons in the 51st annual Super Bowl game and while Lady Gaga played half-time for an estimated 100 million American viewers, I was interviewing Nick Isel about the real ‘Game of Games’: the human quest not for love, but offspring—and his first-hand experience with the fertility industry.
“To sperm donors, it’s like the ultimate game to win,” Nick told me. Football, fame, riches—all of that is considered time misspent toward the real goal of immortality. “The psychological drive to reproduce is taken to extremes in some cases with sperm donors,” he added. Indeed, there have been more than a few sperm donors to sire hundreds of children, some even thousands.
Nick Isel has studied sperm donors for several years now. His interest began when he found out as a teenager that his dad was not his biological father. After his parents divorced, his mom revealed that he had been conceived at The Center for Germinal Choice, or as some refer to it, The Genius Sperm Bank. As Nick explained:
[Journalist] David Plotz coined the term ‘The Inseminators’ to describe them. They see having as many children as possible to be the ultimate objective in a ‘Darwinian’ skewed point of view that associates fathering offspring to scoring goals in the ‘game of life’. They aspire to outbreed role models like Genghis Kahn.
Nick’s biological father was recruited to sell his sperm at The Genius Sperm Bank and told by its founder (a eugenicist named Robert Graham) that smart men like him were “special” and should “be fruitful and multiply.” Graham thought that he was making the world a better place by having the smartest men in the world sire and abandon as many of their children as possible.
Today, Nick Isel is taking whatever intelligence his biological father gifted him with and using it to end donor anonymity in the United States. He is submitting a petition to the FDA that has a good chance of succeeding in its mission.
Anonymity is not the only thing wrong with third party reproduction, but it is a low-hanging fruit that the public understands as immoral. When I tried to identify my own sperm donor father, I was frustrated into tears and nihilism by the inhumane barriers I stumbled upon during my search. The original sperm bank my mother used went out of business. They then sold their data to Zygen Labs, which also went out of business. The only contact information I could find led me to a dystopian sounding answering machine with a woman’s recorded voice saying, “You have reached Zygen Laboratories. Zygen Laboratories has ceased operation. Please do not leave a message on this line. It will not be returned. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”
What is the bare minimum when it comes to adults taking responsibility for the children they create? Is it appropriate for a man or woman to exchange their parental rights for gain? Currently, the U.S. government asserts that a man has every right to conceive a child on purpose without ever offering that child a penny of support, a morsel of sustenance, nor so much as a name or phone number for the child to ever properly identify him—even for potentially life-saving medical information. The only chore he must endure to sire hundreds of offspring this way is to make sure he uses a cup at a registered sperm bank instead of a woman’s body.
For these reasons and more, Nick Isel is petitioning the FDA to achieve three goals:
1) Retain donor records for at least 50 years. Currently, in the U.S., sperm and egg banks must only keep records on their donors for 10 years. They typically destroy these records as soon as they’re allowed to so they can save space and money on data services and labor. They operate and make a profit under a false assumption that offspring won’t care who their biological parents are—even for medical reasons.
It is cruel and irrational to cap record upkeep at 10 years because 10 year-olds do not have the capacity to seek out and make use of those records. The emotional desire for those records might not arise until their later teen years or early twenties, and indeed the medical desire for those records may not arise until much later in life.
Donor offspring like Australia’s Narelle Grech have gone to court and attempted to move mountains to gain life-saving medical information about their genetic parent(s). Sadly, in Narelle’s case, she died at age 30 from bowel cancer. If she'd had information about her donor earlier, she might still be alive.
2) Retain donor records in duplicate locations. The maintenance of donor records is extremely important to donor-conceived offspring for a variety of reasons—some life-saving. It is not too much to ask that those records be retained in duplicate locations in case of accidents or natural disasters.
3) Ban anonymous gamete donation. Anonymity has been banned in the UK, Canada, Australia and most of Europe. The U.S. is behind other countries in realizing this as a human rights violation. Numerous studies and surveys demonstrate that donor-conceived people do not support anonymity. One small survey by the organization, We Are Donor-Conceived found that 86 percent of their community did not support anonymity. The report, My Daddy’s Name Is Donor, randomly surveyed over one million households to find an adult sample of 485 donor-conceived people, of which 67 percent reported they felt they had a right to know the identity of their donor.
During the era of slavery, civil rights leaders and key abolitionists were very critical of the way in which children were separated from their biological parents and denied their heritage. Frederick Douglass wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom:
I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers as it does away with families. . . . The order of civilization is reversed here. The name of the child is not expected to be that of its father . . . He can be father without being a husband and may sell his child without incurring reproach . . .
Are we repeating the same mistakes of America’s slavery days when it comes to how we treat the children of donor conception? At the very least, the FDA should carefully review its existing policies for third-party reproduction in light of the clear ethical dilemmas surrounding donor anonymity.