Selecting a baby-daddy should be less like picking out a paint swatch.
Any room, at least, could get a do-over if the colour doesn’t turn out as advertised. But children are forever, whether arriving by traditional means or delivered through the mail via vial of donated sperm.
My colleague Theresa Boyle reported Tuesday on two Port Hope women — a lesbian couple — who are suing a U.S. sperm bank for allegedly misleading them about the bona fides of the donor they chose from a profile album of ejaculators. Turns out, the lawsuit asserts, he is profoundly not as trumpeted: No 160 IQ, no bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, no master’s in artificial intelligence, no pending PhD in neuroscience engineering, and generally far from the progenitor they believed they were getting.
As the women discovered years after one of them had been successfully artificially inseminated with what the complaint says is falsified seed, their donor was actually a college dropout and ex-felon, as asserted in their statement of claim. A mole on the man’s cheek seems to have been removed from the photo which the clinic provided to clients, says the lawsuit, further alleging that, most worrisomely, the contributor suffers from schizophrenia.
There is no test for schizophrenia and thus the condition would not have been caught in medical screening unless the donor self-reported. While there is no known single cause for schizophrenia, it is considered to be “multifactorially” inherited — many factors, both genetic and environmental — where a combination of genes from both parents produce the trait. Where one parent is schizophrenic, the chances of a child developing the disorder is 10 per cent.
So you can understand the dismay and anxiety of these women, now the parents of a seven-year-old son.
The donor in this case appears to have fathered 36 children. Some of the recipients, like the aforementioned couple, learned the purported truth only after the company sent them emails containing the man’s name — a breach of confidentiality which the sperm bank denies was any such thing, claiming the information was provided upon request and mutual agreement — because on occasion donors and recipients do wish to make contact.
The legal ramifications are immense. While the women have not asked for a specific financial amount in their lawsuit, they accuse Xytex of acting with “fraud, malice and oppression.” Their objective, as explained to Boyle in an email, is to establish a medical monitoring fund for all the children of Donor 9623, by which the potential for developing psychosis can be tracked and addressed. More broadly, they’re hoping to initiate improved regulations in the fertility industry so that such a predicament will not occur again.
Making babies in the 21st century is rife with moral and professional dilemmas. Societies are making it up as they go along, contending with the ethics of harnessing the consequences from in vitro fertilization, from what science has made possible. One Michigan doctor — described by the New York Post as a “sperm shooting star” — donated his sperm twice a week for 14 years at $20 a pop, fathering upwards of 400 children. Hollywood has exploited the subject in rom-com movies about switched vials and children seeking out their turkey-baster dads.
It isn’t remotely funny, however, in real life, where the possibility exists of urgent medical ramifications and the possibility, however slight, of unknowing half-siblings meeting and becoming intimately involved.
In Canada, courts at different levels of the judicial system have issued conflicting rulings in different provinces, though these matters have primarily revolved around dueling rights in “third-party assisted conception.” Historically, the prevailing view has been that donors should remain anonymous — with only their medical history compelled by law — unless they choose different. (And of course many sperm donations are done ad hoc, with a friend or relative providing the semen, whether to infertile couples, same-sex couples or single women.)
Some donors and donor offspring have connected through registries launched for the purpose. The Assisted Human Reproduction Act of 2004 mandated the registration of information, but this measure was never implemented by Parliament.
In this country, the most famous case involved Olivia Pratten, a journalist conceived through anonymous sperm donation who sought disclosure about her biological father. Pratten argued that donor-conceived children are systematically discriminated against in comparison to adoptees, who have the legal right to obtain information about their genetic origins. In 2011, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in her favour but that decision was reversed on appeal. Pratten then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which refused to hear the case. Thus the issue has never been definitively settled.
At this point, there isn’t even any consensus on details which should be included in the donor’s profile, apart from medical history. (Some countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have banned anonymous donation entirely.)
The trend is towards providing more info at the sperm-warehouse level that has nothing to do with need-to-know: Likes and dislikes, education and IQ, profession. And, of course, all that can be discerned from a photograph.
But such disclosure poses a whole other set of ethical conundrums.
When couples mate with the hope of procreating, presumably they see in each other qualities that are pleasing: I want you to be the father/mother of my child. Then genetics decide much of the rest. That holds equally true for one-night flings that result in pregnancy.
You don’t get to sit down and sift through the qualities deemed most agreeable. You don’t get to discard the disagreeable.
Wanted: Blue eyes, blond hair, white, advanced scholastic degrees, Mensa IQ, long fingers (to play the piano), athletic prowess (so my kid can make the NHL), beauty.
That’s a version of genetic engineering.
And that is essentially what the carriage-trade sperm factories are offering — “unsurpassed quality controls,” as Xytex promises on its website. Just tick your box: height, weight, religion, child photo available, and single donor only — one-shot sperm for exclusive use.
Expedited overnight delivery available for an added fee.
Babies on demand, for the discriminating mom.
Because it’s all about you.