“What’s in it for you besides random sex with a lot of women?”
If your sexual inclination is for women, this doesn’t seem like a question that requires much of an answer. But when journalist Deborah Roberts asks it of 23-year-old Kyle Gordy in this 20/20 piece, he’s got a response. “It’s kind of like, wow, like, I just made life, like I passed on my legacy, and I’m giving these people kids.”
Gordy is a sperm donor—but not the old-fashioned kind of sperm donor who uses vials and cryobanks, or even turkey basters. He’s a newer breed of breeder, a “natural inseminator.” They deliver their seminal products via sexual intercourse. Of course, the idea of having sex with a man not one’s husband to get his sperm is at least as old as the story of Lot and his daughters. Today’s natural inseminators, however, connect via Facebook groups or websites with women who want to become pregnant. Women who choose natural inseminators are generally attracted by the price: free. Cryobanks, which screen for genetic disorders and STDs, cost big bucks; see here for some of the charges. Other recipients of natural insemination believe (probably falsely) that fresh sperm are better than frozen. Some might prefer to begin their babies’ lives in a non-clinical setting.
There’s something a little bit like prostitution about natural insemination. Of course, it’s free and legal. But in most cases of both prostitution and natural insemination, two people who otherwise have no connection with one another have sexual relations, and at least one party’s ulterior motive is neither sexual desire nor intimacy. Sex, then, is not wholly experiential but at least partially transactional.
Some people might say, as they say about sex work, so what? In both cases, there are two consenting adults. Why shouldn’t they make whatever private economic or sexual arrangements they desire? No one, at least under ideal conditions, is getting harmed. With prostitution, this idea is gaining some acceptance, but it remains a minority view, particularly among conservatives and women. In a YouGov poll from 2012, 48 percent of respondents probably or definitely oppose legalization of prostitution, while 38 percent think it should probably or definitely be legal. A measure that would decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, not known as the most prudish of cities, was soundly defeated in 2008, 58-42 percent. Of course, among those who think prostitution should be legal might be some who think it nonetheless is immoral—as most people feel that adultery is immoral but should be legal.
One of the main moral objections to sex work, namely, that it exploits the economically vulnerable, is also an objection to natural insemination. As in sex work, there are ideal conditions under which no one gets economically exploited, in which two people are freely choosing a transaction that is exactly what each wants. But, also as in sex work, there are people who would prefer to choose other means to their ends than sex with strangers, but are drawn to the transaction by economic need.
And the men, of course, cannot always, or probably even usually, be acting out of altruism. One website that connects donors and recipients includes the suggestion: “LADIES: if you only want artificial insemination (AI), then say so when you post, otherwise most replies will be from men wanting NI. ‘Natural’ donors are allowed on this group. GENTLEMEN: if you only want to donate by having NI, then say so when you post, but be aware that most women only want artificial insemination. If you are a ‘natural’-only donor, then please do NOT contact any women who have requested AI.”
Another moral objection to sex work is that, at least in some cases, the client treats the prostitute like an object instead of a person. The prostitute is paid to have his or her actual bodily desires be more or less irrelevant for a certain period of time. This is not quite the same in natural insemination, but one can imagine a worst-case scenario in which a woman seeking a natural sperm donation makes herself vulnerable to abuse or a sexually transmitted disease.
Even in a less-bad scenario, women might be objectified or used. Roberts’ other donor interviewee, who calls himself Joe Donor, is a married man who brags that he has slept with over 100 women, and gotten 30 of them pregnant. His wife and their three children (to whom he is a social as well as biological father) have no idea about his fruitful secret life. Nor, presumably, are they aware that he is also the self-published author of the epigrammatically-titled book, “Get Pregnant For Free on the Internet With a Private Sperm Donor Without Having Sex or Paying $$$ to a Sperm Bank.” Joe’s explanation of why he’s becoming the maven of natural insemination sounds like a sexually frustrated letter to Savage Love: Joe wants to have 30 children, but he just can’t ask that of his partner. The man doesn’t exactly exude charity and kindness toward his wife, sex partners, or children.
While Joe may want as many children as he can possibly have, he’s placing himself, his wife, and their children in a vulnerable place financially. Donating sperm through a cryobank or with the assistance of a physician insulates men from lawsuits for child support. Informal sperm donors, even those that don’t rely on actual intercourse, may be liable for child support, even if they sign a contract stating otherwise.
In addition to sharing some ethical worries with prostitution, natural insemination also carries with it some of the moral unease that cryobank sperm donations have. The recipients can also objectify the donor. Recipients in a cryobank can peruse donor files and see hair color, eye color, race, height, IQ, and so on. Natural inseminators offer similar information about themselves. On one hand, the recipients are just trying to maximize their future children’s chances for the best life possible. On the other hand, they are viewing their donors, and their future children, not as whole people but as the sum of certain parts. If parents-to-be embark on parenthood this way, will their children be loved unconditionally if they aren’t smart, tall, skinny, and good-looking-but-similar-to-their-parents?
In a recent case that gained some notoriety, a woman who accidentally received sperm from an African-American cryobank donor sued for wrongful birth—that is, her suit claimed that she was harmed by the birth of her daughter because her daughter was mixed race. The attitude this mother exhibited, which repelled many, is something of an outgrowth of selecting donors (and children) to have certain properties. Of course, when you have a biological child with your partner, you expect the child to inherit some of your partner’s qualities. But most women don’t choose a husband solely on the basis of the heritable traits he will pass to their children.
Ultimately, despite any ethical qualms about natural insemination, it seems cruel to restrict reproductive options only to wealthy women. Some women who want to be mothers and have maternal love to give should have the ability to do just that. The best option would be for more fertility treatments covered by insurance. Then women who want natural insemination could get it that way, and those who want neither the risk nor the transactional sex that come with natural insemination wouldn’t need to have it.