February 28, 2013 (PublicDiscourse) - Yesterday I explained the problems that arise from commercialized sperm donation—namely degraded men who are absent fathers to children disturbed by the circumstances of their birth. Today I explore more closely the role that money plays as men’s greatest motive for donating sperm, and its impact on future children. I conclude by proposing how we can challenge the sperm-sale industry.

Money Matters

Many people in the assisted reproductive technology world want adult-conceived donor children to hush their complaints and ignore their own suffering. But some new buyers are listening to them. Sperm banks now offer more financial compensation to donors who are willing to be identified when a child turns eighteen. According to Rene Almeling, one sperm facility now pays 55 percent more to donors willing to be identified ($100 per donation) than it pays to anonymous donors ($65 per donation). At three cups per week, four weeks per month, $100 per sample creates a monthly income of $1200.

This money is the primary incentive for identification, not a sense of responsibility or a desire to know one’s children. To increase sales, men sometimes are prompted by facility staff members to beef up their stated motives for donating. One staff member explained to Almeling that if a profile is negative, the man may be further queried:

“Do you really mean that money is the only thing for you?” And if it is, we are honest enough to just leave it that way. But a lot of times [donors] say, “Well, it’s not just the money, it’s also. . . .” [So the staff will say,] “Why don’t you rewrite this little portion to reflect that also?”

The facilities do not invest money in these men without expecting a substantial profit from the sale of their sperm. So they have every reason to make donor profiles as appealing as possible. Altruism is an appealing motive to sperm buyers. Avarice is not.

If men were not paid $50 to $100 per donation, how many would show up at the clinic each week? The commonsense answer is very few, if any. In contrast, millions of men go out of their way to donate blood every year for no fee. They are willing to undergo discomfort and inconvenience without reimbursement.

Like sperm donors, blood donors don’t know where or how their blood will be used, but blood does not create children. The reality is that selling sperm is nearly always a selfish act done for money with no regard for the wellbeing of the children produced. When men sell their sperm knowing it will be used to create children but don’t know where, when, by whom, or under what circumstances their children will be born, it is hard to make a case for altruism.

While some men (e.g., Ben in Almeling’s book) claim to sell their sperm because they think the world will be a better place with more of their genes in circulation, most sellers acknowledge the money factor. Consider this passage from a recent article in The Guardian on Simon, age 24, who is an anonymous donor in Denmark.

“I moved to Aarhus four years ago and I couldn't find a job. I didn't have any money, but I had an apartment I couldn't afford and that was how I came to be a donor.” Simon would sometimes visit Cryos five days a week, but he has now cut it down to twice-weekly. “It's such a weird experience,” he says. “You go in and everyone knows exactly what you are doing.” Simon earns around 2000 kroner a month and he uses the money to buy treats such as an Xbox.

The same article reports that Simon probably has more than 100 children and quotes him saying, “My parents don't know I do this. My mother would find it hard to know she had grandchildren she would never meet—that would upset her.”

Where is Dad?

When Almeling asked a past president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, “What happens to the donors? Do they forget it, or is it part of their life for the rest of their lives?” the physician answered: “The sperm donors probably couldn’t give a hoot about what happened to those kids. They did it for the money. It was easy to collect the sperm and [then] good-bye.”

Betsy Cairo, a University of Northern Colorado professor who founded the CryoGam Colorado sperm bank in Greeley, Colorado, has observed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “sometimes these donors are 19 or 20. They don't think that far down the road. Some might even forget they were a donor in college.”

Ultimately, these men are creating children with strangers around the world about whom they know nothing. Is the recipient capable? Will the children be safe, fed, loved? What country are the children in? They have no idea. There are no background checks, no criminal record checks, and no home studies. There are no testimonials in support of the sperm buyers, who often arrange through a doctor for the sperm to be shipped directly to their homes.

Moreover, no one knows how many children are born through sperm donation. There are more than 150 commercial sperm facilities in the United States. One facility cited in Almeling’s book ships approximately 2,500 vials of sperm around the world each month. There is no requirement that the purchasers report a successful birth back to the facility. It is estimated that only 20 percent to 40 percent of births are reported back. So there is no way to measure how many children are conceived each year with purchased sperm or how most of these children are doing.

Suggestions for Action

What can be done? Here are some suggestions.

Donors: If you have already donated sperm, but have second thoughts, regrets, or simply don’t want more children conceived through the use of your sperm, consider sending a letter (return receipt requested) to the sperm facility, unequivocally withdrawing your consent to the use of your sperm and demanding that it be destroyed. A strong argument can be made that a person cannot contract away the right to decide that no (more) children be conceived with his sperm. This is not about the sale of widgets. This is about creating human life. In responding to your request, the sperm facility may have to consider the emotional, psychological, and financial damage that may be caused by choosing to ignore an unequivocal demand from you that your sperm not be used.

Charitable Institutions, Non-Profits, and Foundations: Consider funding a professionally designed website that promotes the case against sperm donation. The site could post articles, stories from adult-donor-conceived children, and appropriate links to other sites such as Anonymous Us. It could serve as a referral resource for parents, professors, university staff, and friends of potential donors. These men could be encouraged or asked to review the site before making their decision.

Colleges and Universities: Proponents of sperm donation can promote it by showing thousands of young smiling children with their mothers but as I’ve stated already, it’s unclear how many children have been conceived through donation (60 percent to 80 percent do not have their births reported to the facility), and how well they are faring. It’s likely that many of them, especially those who are adults, are bothered by their birth circumstances. Professors, administrators, coaches, and campus ministry staff could counter the billion-dollar gamete industry, Hollywood, and pro-donation colleagues with newspaper articles, op-eds, letters to the editor, forums on fatherhood, mentoring services, and possibly, small counter-ads: “Thinking about sperm donation? Think again! Contact A, or go to website B, or send an email to C address.”

Politicians: Since last year, Washington state now allows children conceived through sperm purchased from in-state facilities to access donor medical histories and, unless a donor specifically opts out, donor identification when the children turn eighteen. If Britain, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and parts of New Zealand and Australia have been able to ban anonymous sperm “donation” on humanitarian grounds, then such progress on a state-by-state basis in the United States is certainly possible.

Truth Be Not Drowned

G.K. Chesterton wrote that Aldous Huxley “lit up the whole loathsome landscape of . . . synthetic humanity and manufactured men and women” by naming his satirical utopia Brave New World. He said it would take a “certain amount of bravery, as well as brutality” and “some courage, and even self-sacrifice, to establish anything so utterly disgusting . . . in the world of fact.”Yet here we are.

John M. Smoot served as a trial court judge of Boston’s Probate and Family Court from 1990 to 2012. Reprinted with permission from The Public Discourse.