BIRDS & BEES

09.20.14 10:55 AM ET

Today’s Sperm Donor Isn’t a Broke 20-Something

Most people think of sperm donors as 20-somethings looking for a quick buck. But today’s donors want to know about their offspring, and even be involved in their lives.

In 1986, Richard Hatch, infamous villain and victor of CBS's inaugural season of Survivor, was a cash-strapped undergraduate at George Mason University in Virginia.

He was looking for ways to fatten his slim income when he came across a local newspaper ad seeking sperm donations at $40 a pop. “Before signing up, I thought through everything” he said in a recent interview from his home in Newport, Rhode Island. “I considered potential contact with my donor offspring at a later date or no contact at all; what I might feel if I met him or her; who might be looking for donations.” His sexuality also played into his decision: “Growing up, I always knew I wanted to have a family and kids, but because I'm gay that wasn't going to happen with a woman, so I think in the back of my head, donating was a way to do that.”

Today, Hatch is a married father of one adopted son, but he longs to connect with his progeny. He has repeatedly written to the Fairfax Cryobank, where he donated three times a week for two years, waiving his right to anonymity. “I requested that my name be given to anyone searching for me for any reason,” he said.

When I reminded him that that could mean hundreds of offspring showing up on his doorstep, he didn't flinch. “Life for me is meaningful communication and engagement, so there's no freaking out about this at all. I'm excited about the possibility of making contact with as many of them as I can. I even feel a longing to meet them.” To gauge his level of truthfulness, I asked, “So, you wouldn't mind if I included your donor identification number in the story?” To which he swiftly replied, “007.” (Seriously, those are his digits.) Hatch admits that he may be “a little odd,” but it turns out he's less odd than one might think.

Contrary to popular perceptions, sperm donors aren't always mindless 20-somethings, thoughtlessly squandering their seed for cash without a passing thought to the lives that might result from their donations. A 2012 study titled “Semen donors who are open to contact with their offspring: issues and implications for them and their families,” found that of 164 sperm donors, the primary motivation for donating was to help families who wanted to have children (78 percent), followed by making money (61 percent), and passing on genes (41 percent). And, like Hatch, 97 percent of them think about their biological brood: they wonder about their health and happiness and how much of their genetics are reflected in their physical characteristics.

Wendy Kramer is co-founder, with her donor-conceived son Ryan, of the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR). It has been helping connect paternal half-siblings with each other and their donors since 2000. Kramer told me that she often meets two types of men in her role as the de facto mother hen of the DSR: men who want to connect with their donees once they've had their own children, and men who've never had their own kids and consequently desire to find their genetic heirs.

Robert, an actor who donated for a decade in the late 60s and 70s, falls into the latter category. From his apartment in New York City, he said that right after a former girlfriend gave birth to his daughter, a stillborn and the only child he'd ever be able to call his own, he'd search the faces of females in crowds, trying to find a resemblance to his own. “I'm very happy not having gone through the war of raising children,” he explained, “but on the other hand, you have to notice when people say, 'This is the greatest experience in the world.'“

While Robert stresses that he doesn't feel a gap in his life, he's taken significant steps to track down his genetic children. Eight years ago, he registered on the DSR and logged his DNA with an ancestry organization in the hope that it might lead to his descendants. “I've been expecting that I would be hearing from and communicating with them,” he noted with a touch of sadness. “I'm a little disappointed that hasn't happened.”

“The biggest misconception about donors,” Kramer told me, “is that they all want to be anonymous. Wrong. Wrong!” In the 2012 survey, which Kramer co-authored, 94 percent of donors were open to contact with their offspring. Of those, 86 percent would make themselves available for any questions their bio-children might have; 83 percent would share medical information; and 80 percent would be happy to carry on an email relationship and share photos.

Of the five donors I spoke with, all except one even expressed some form of moral obligation toward their donees. Matt, a divorced Minnesotan with a 15-year-old daughter, who, as far as he knows, has fathered 12 other kids, captured the sentiments of most of the men I interviewed. “Once I opened that door by joining the DSR, I felt I should share pictures, a genetic history of me and my family, and I'll tell them anything else they want to know about me—but I don't feel an obligation beyond that. That said, I'm open and I'll take it on a case by case basis.”

Given that the population of people profiled in the 2012 study, as well as those I spoke with, were mostly drawn from the DSR (73 percent), the results are inherently skewed, and might not reflect the feelings of the vast majority of sperm donors. After all, these men are all on a quest to make contact with their donees, so it follows that they've thought about them with more depth and dimension than your average guy.

But if it's true that most men are like Jay, a married musician with two kids, who thinks that his participation—a decade of donating—was a mere business transaction and bears no sense of responsibility or strong feeling for his donor offspring, it's a symptom of a culture that fosters a disconnect between men and their reproductive material. In the interest of maintaining traditional ideals of masculinity and familial divisions of labor, it seems that reproduction is almost always cast as a “women's issue.”

In fact, I'd argue that the diminishment of men's contribution to the procreative process in the fertility industry and in the culture at large, as Yale Professor Rene Almeling exposed in her 2013 book Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, helps reify the notion that fatherhood is secondary to motherhood. As Almeling put it in a recent phone interview, “We have organized reproduction and parenthood in particular ways that really emphasize the role that women have and undermine the part of men.”

Almeling's research highlights the ways in which the fertility industry values women’s eggs and men’s sperm by looking at the very gendered practices and policies of six sperm banks and egg agencies across the country. Even the ads targeting potential sperm donors, she explained, partake in a culture of belittlement by framing sperm donation as a joke: “Get paid for what you're already doing!” reads one. Sperm banks also take a trivializing attitude toward donors. “They have jokes on t-shirts and pens. The staff were really proud of the double entendres they could come up with, like, 'One in the hand is worth two in the bush,'“ she recalled of one particular bank. Similarly, I spoke to the owner of a bank in NYC who laughingly referred to his donors as the “crème de la crème.” “Egg donors are seen as giving something sacred,” Almeling said, “and sperm donors are seen as doing something dirty.”

Not only are women paid substantially more—$5,000 to $10,000 per cycle, while men earn on average $50 to $100 per accepted specimen—Almeling found that women understood their compensation as a “gift,” they often received presents and thank-you notes from their recipients, some of whom they met and were treated reverentially by staff. Men, in contrast, saw donating as a “job.” “Men are treated much more like employees,” Almeling said. “They're expected to clock in at least once or twice a week. They're only paid if their sample meets certain standards. Nobody's telling them how wonderful they are or thanking them for their donation.”

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Some men, she discovered, even found the process of donating objectifying and alienating. “A technician in a laboratory, said, 'Well, people just think that the egg donors are gold and the sperm donors are a dime a dozen',” Almeling recalled, summarizing the discrepancy in attitudes toward egg and sperm donors.

Granted, women harbor far fewer eggs than men do sperm. The procedure they undergo to extract eggs is intense and invasive and there are no sexual kicks involved. But disparaging men's reproductive contribution or writing them out of the equation altogether as Almeling believes we often do, doesn't just hurt men. By over-accentuating our different biological functions in creating life and giving women's reproduction greater value, we are, unwittingly perhaps, calcifying the notion that children are inherently women's work. We are ensuring that women continue to carry the heavier half of parental duties, which is inextricably linked to our social and professional disadvantage. As others have pointed out: How often do male CEOs get asked about their work-life balance? It may seem like a wild leap at first glance, but this question and the women it's almost exclusively addressed to directly correlates with our gendered perceptions of sperm and egg donors.

Fairfax Cryobank responded to Richard Hatch’s letters relinquishing his right to anonymity. They said it went against their policy, even with his permission. But luckily, between 2009 and 2011, two of his donor children, Emily and Devin, found him via the DSR. Today, they are a big part of his life. They vacation together and spend Christmas Eves in Maine. Emily, in fact, will be staying with him on the weekends while she finishes her master's degree at a college in Rhode Island. “It's really amazing,” he said, “they’ve changed my life.”