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Assisted Reproduction

The Digital Era: A Sperm Donor Discovers His Rich, Unsettling Legacy

A fascinating look at how the internet has impacted the field of sperm donation:

Being admitted to California Cryobank as a sperm donor is a bit like getting into Harvard. The bank accepts fewer than 1 percent of its 26,000 annual applicants. (Harvard, in comparison, accepts about 6 percent of its approximately 35,000 undergraduate applicants.) Cryobank has even set up clinics in Cambridge, New York, Los Angeles, and Palo Alto specifically to be near the prestigious colleges from which it hopes to draw donors.

Raul Walters, whose name has been changed, represents the Cryobank’s ideal candidate. He is tall and good-looking, holds degrees from top schools, and enjoys a clean bill of health: no one in his immediate family has a history of cancer, early-onset heart disease, or mental illness. Raul began donating sperm in 2004, to help finance a year off before law school. He was working on a novel while trolling for job opportunities on Craigs-list, and his wife was pregnant with their first child. “I had no real skills,” he said, “but I was six-three with a half-million-dollar education.” Like many of Cryobank’s target donors, Raul is goal-oriented, and he admitted that the selectivity was also part of the allure.

Raul made about $10,000 total by donating a couple of times a week for a year and a half, at $70 a sample. He didn’t dwell on the outcome—the possible children, the various mothers. He went on with his plans for a legal career, his artistic pursuits, and his own family life. Last year, he mentioned to colleagues that he’d been a sperm donor during his time off. “Have you ever Googled your donor number?” one of the other lawyers asked.

Raul had not. But that morning at work he typed his donor number into the search engine. The first hit was a blog called Django Djournal, a mother’s chronicle of the baby, Django, she had conceived with Raul’s sperm. At the top of the page was a photo of a chubby 2-year-old in striped shorts, smiling halfheartedly—Raul himself as a toddler. “It was out of context,” he explained. “So it took me a minute to realize why it was familiar.” During the period he was donating, he’d sold the photograph to the bank for an extra $200, to give a sense of what a baby of his might look like.

The next photo on the page was of 6-month-old Django, and the resemblance was indeed striking—the dark hair and eyes, the open face. Raul and his wife had two children of their own by this time, and Django resembled them, too. What made the blog entry even more transfixing, though, were the photographs of two other babies also conceived with Raul’s sperm. Their mothers had tracked down the blog, and the result was an impromptu online community of mothers who’d used Raul’s sperm. As Django’s mother, who goes by “Mama K” on the blog, wrote:

I didn’t give much thought to the idea of other children by the donor I chose … You can imagine my surprise then, when, in one whirlwind of a weekend, I received emails from the moms of two other [babies by the same donor].

Raul struggles to describe how he felt when he saw these children. “You know how it feels to come out of the trees on the coast and suddenly see the ocean?” he asked. “It’s so vast and incomprehensible. You have that moment of awe.”

Raul’s initial sperm donation had sold out quickly—so quickly, in fact, that in 2008 the bank asked Raul to come out of “retirement” to help a woman who had given birth to one child using his sperm conceive a full genetic sibling. (This time, because the donation required travel and time away from his job, he charged the bank his law firm’s daily rate. As he joked to me, “What part of people paying me for my sperm is ‘donation’?”)

Django Djournal (which Mama K recently made a private blog) is not the only site that praises Raul’s sperm and the “curly-haired, bright-eyed” babies it produces. Cryobank, which helps about 10,000 women each year to conceive, has its own bulletin-board community, where women can locate other mothers with the same donor, recommend good sperm (Raul’s gets a shout-out), and find emotional support. It’s not hard to imagine a day in the near future when Web sites will let mothers rate sperm the way diners rate restaurants on Yelp. And really, if sperm is a product for sale, why shouldn’t such sites exist? Women already risking a great deal by going this unconventional route could be reassured to know that a particular “brand” is working properly, creating healthy, bright babies. But is sperm a product? Should selecting it be like shopping for a washing machine?

The Internet was not a concern when California Cryobank was founded, in 1977, but it figures heavily into the business model today. Aspiring mothers can fill out an online search form (for, say, a Catholic donor with blond hair and blue eyes) and instantly receive a list of options. For anonymity’s sake, no photos of the donors as adults are included; instead, each profile is footnoted with links to images of celebrities that the donor most resembles—a feature the bank says has been extremely popular. I did a quick search for brown-haired Caucasian donors, which gave me a list of men who, Cryobank assured me, resembled Justin Timberlake, James Franco, or Steve Carell.

As Django Djournal and the chat rooms demonstrate, though, the Internet also enables networking between mothers who share a donor. And as the donor children grow up, they too are likely to connect with one another online. Cryobank aims to make 25 to 30 women pregnant from each donor’s sperm, though it says the number is usually closer to 12 or 15. Some of those women will have more than one child using the sperm. And once women purchase their vials of a donor’s sperm—which they do up front, to guarantee the product won’t run out—they can do what they wish with any excess, even creating a secondary market for vials of unused sperm. I found at least one woman, unaffiliated with Cryobank, who expressed interest in purchasing another woman’s leftover vials of Raul’s sperm so she could conceive her own baby. The sperm of a popular donor like Raul could easily produce several dozen children.

One mother who’d been compiling a list of the half-siblings of her own baby by Raul’s sperm wrote on Cryobank’s bulletin board that she had already found 22 “success stories” by networking online. When I e-mailed her, she replied, “I am not comfortable disclosing the exact number of siblings, but I will say there are more than I had initially hoped.”

California Cryobank says that, by industry standards, it is conservative in the number of vials it will sell from a given donor. A recent documentary on the Style network featured a donor who knows of at least 70 offspring from his sperm donations and suspects that he may have as many as 140. One has to wonder at the implications of scores of biologically related children, especially in an age when they will be able to find one another online so easily—and when their anonymous fathers will be able to find them as well.

Describing the sensation of first seeing the biological children he’d never known, Raul told me, “It released a lot of brain chemicals. It felt bigger than me. It was not a benign feeling.” I asked Raul if he’d donate again, knowing how he feels now. He shrugged. “I probably would,” he said. “But then, I’m open to chaos.”


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