Lessons from the NYTimes Style Section: Three Women and Their Lucky Sperm

Once again I find myself having to apologize for being inattentive.  I’ve been travelling a bit and it’s been hard to find time/space and energy to draft a new entry.   I woke up today with new resolve, however, and then found that The New York Times Style Section had again provided me with a fine taking off point. 

This story is featured in today’s paper.   It’s about a woman (Carey Goldberg) who wanted to have children but had not yet found the proper mate.   As she approached 39 she decided to go it alone and purchased sperm with the intention of inseminating and becoming a single mother.   And then, the very day the sperm arrived, she met Mr. Right.   No more need for donor sperm. 

Not to waste perfectly good sperm she passed it on to Beth Greenberg, 38 years old and also considering single motherhood in the absence of the right man.   And then, soon after taking possession of the sperm, Ms. Greenberg, too, met Mr. Right.   (A different Mr. Right, I hasten to add.)  

And so Ms. Greenberg passed the sperm on to Pamela Ferdinand, who was in the same 38 and single, but wanted to be a parent category.   And lo, the lucky sperm worked its magic and Ms. Ferdinand to0 suddenly found herself with the right man.  (This is a standard three-wishes story.  The fourth women to get the sperm was not lucky in either finding a Mr. Right or becoming pregnant via insemination.) 

Now you could wonder (as I did) why on earth this seems like news.   I suppose the news is that the three women have written a book about this chain of events.   I guess I’m not the target audience and I find myself wondering a little bit who is.  

There are, however, several points in the article that I wanted to comment on.   First, the story mentions that California Cryobank that 25-28% of its clients today are single women.   I’ve been meaning to poke around the web and see what sorts of statistics about sperm purchasers are out there.   Given the arrival of new ART techniques like ICSI, it seems to me a larger proportion of those purchasing sperm would be women who otherwise had no access to it–which means single women and lesbian couples.   This statistic would seem consistent with my expectation.  

I’m afraid I just cannot leave that paragraph of the article without noting, too, that California Cryobank apparently offers sperm from men who resemble Hugh Jackman and Johnny Depp.  I find this simultaneously incredible and slightly appalling.    But then, twenty years ago it was sperm from Nobel Prize winners.   Was that better or am I just being snobbish. 

Second, although the book has apparently not been selling terrifically well (and does this explain the NYT story?), the publisher expected it to sell.   It offered a mid-six figures advance.   That would be something around $500,000 if I’m counting right, which is a hefty chunk of change. 

So who did they expect they audience to be?    Though the publisher’s insists “this isn’t just a fairy tale” I think that’s exactly why there might be a chance the book would sell.   The narrative seems clear:  each of these women was prepared to go to the extreme–to become a single mother.  And then thanks to the “lucky sperm” Mr. Right appears and now they all live happily ever after, properly married with properly genetically related kids.   I can practically see it as a movie, though it makes my skin crawl just a bit. 

In fairness I should note that the three authors of the book insist that this is not what they mean to convey, but it is certainly how the story looks to me. 

As a last note, there’s a listing of current and soon-to-come movies about conception with donor sperm.   I guess I can start doing film reviews soon.  What fun.

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22 responses to “Lessons from the NYTimes Style Section: Three Women and Their Lucky Sperm

  1. I agree with you Julie…this sounds like a creepy book but because it is non-conventional, they thought it would sell. I hope it doesn’t and I hope it is not glamorized by the big screen either. Common sense from this story is that people prefer to procreate with someone they know and will be there for the child. I wonder if that point will be lost on the fact that they could have settled for something far less as well as the future consequences to the child.

  2. Hmm this post didn’t deal with ID release, but I feel important for prospective sperm purchasers to realize the fine print on many open donor sperm bank contracts- many will say “we reserve the right to withhold this information at our discretion” or “we are not liable if the donor changes his mind, can not be located, etc” while on the other hand, they hold YOU the purchaser legally liable should you attempt to seek him out yourself.

    • Sorry for th e misleading link. Maybe there’s no one post that really will summarize, but try this one? https://julieshapiro.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/lesbian-mothers-and-sperm-donors-known-or-otherwise/

      I think you’ve raised a very good point, however, and a complicated one. It’s all very well and good to have an identity-release donor in theory. But if you don’t in fact have an identity release donor, there’s not much point to it. Because identity-release is generally going to happen no sooner than 18 years from when you start (I’m sure individual arrangments vary here, but still, a long time) if a sperm bank offers identity release it seems like they need to make a commitment to at least maintain all the records they have. But of course, even if the bank does all that it can, the man who provided the sperm can still have vanished. I think you can get around the “changes his mind” to the extent the bank holds the information, but not to the extent he doesn’t update his record information. So perhaps it needs to be clear that what a sperm bank can really promise is a packet of information about the provider. It is likely, but not certain, that given the information and time/effort/money, you can track the donor. Short of a national system of registration and tracking (which I don’t believe we’ll ever see), I don’t see how a person can realistically be promised more than this. If this is indeed the case, then it ought to be clear from the get-go.

  3. I was similarly mystified by this article. My guess: the taret book audience was upper-middle class white women of a certain “watching-their-biological-clocks-tick-tocking-away-age.” And the article itself was “creative marketing” for said book. One of the book’s authors had gone through a difficult divorce, but ended up with a $10 million settlement. (and that was before the lucky sperm!) Another had fallen in love with a married man…but he left his wife for her! (I wonder if the ex-wife would agree that it was, indeed, “lucky sperm”)! The article makes reference to the best-selling teen book (and movie) the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. At least those young women had interesting stories to tell. Come to think of it….maybe you just need to lower the ages of the mothers-to-be, and you’ll have your new, money spending teen target audience. Wait – didn’t Jennifer Aniston already star in that movie? Blah.

  4. marilynn huff

    Wow how incredibly boring. There is nothing to sink my fangs into at all there.

  5. @Carol, I think you’re spot on. The article was in the mold of NYT articles about books by NYT alumni (one author had been a bureau chief).

    Re. celebrity lookalikes — I agree, that’s appalling. I bought sperm from CCB. It’s too bad that they’ve gone so overboard on the wish-fulfillment, one-click shopping side of the business. It’s easy to say that buying gametes online is just selfish or tacky, but I don’t believe that. Perhaps what bothers me, instead, is the lack of proportion evidenced by both the NYT story and the marketing strategies of the sperm bank. The mighty sperm looms large in cultural myths of alternative reproduction. But the provenance and delivery of the sperm is insignificant compared to actually caring for a child from birth to adulthood. Or at least it should be!

    Strangely, the single 39-year-old woman shopping for frozen sperm is viewed with slightly disgusted fascination, but the woman who bags a husband at 39, apparently with the sole purpose of reproducing, seems to be admired. How do these relationships fare in the long run, and does anyone ask if this method of reproduction is “good for the children”?

  6. Interesting to see marrying with the intent of having children together, which is pretty much standard in human society, classified as “this method.”

    • I think that is a bit of the point, or at least it could be. We draw this remarkably heavy line between ART (where sperm is delivered via a turkey baster or a fancier medical equivilant) and reproduction via intercourse. The second is considered to be natural and generally beyond regulation. It doesn’t draw the same sort of scrutiny that ART does.

      I do realize that there are obvious differences between ART and intercourse. No one engages is ART just for fun and pregnancy is never an unintended consequence. I suppose some would say that conception via ART is much more cold-blooded and calculating than conception via intercourse, and there is some truth to that, although the I don’t think the pejorative overtones are helpful. (Of course, people do engage in intercourse for particular purpose of achieving conception. Sometimes that’s a shared goal of the participants and sometimes not.) If one thought logically about what sort of differential treatment ought to flow from these distinctions between ART and intercourse, I don’t think you’d really arrive at where we are.

  7. How these relationships fare in the long run: If people marry in order to have children together, and actually do have children together and parent them and manage a household reasonably well together, why should those relationships fare worse than any other relationship? I resent Theresa’s implication that there’s something wrong with marrying in order to have children. In fact I find that an excellent motivation for marriage, in an age where sex is so easily available to young men.

    • I’d be a bit appalled if a friend proposed to marry a man simply because he possessed physical characteristics she thought she’d like to see in her kids, especially if she was planning to raise children in the context of that marriage. Raising children is not an easy task, for one person or for two. If you go the two parent route it seems to me that ideally the two parents ought to have a pretty decent working relationship and ideally, they’d know that in advance of entering into the process. So I wouldn’t be appalled if two very good friends decided to have child together, even if they weren’t a romantic couple.
      That said, I know that people choose to get married (or choose not to get married) for all sorts of reasons. But if what you really like is the genetic characteristics you think a person would provide rather than the actual person, then I think you’d be better off using them as a sperm provider.

      • I don’t think you’d be “better off” “using” anyone as anything.

        Also since I believe the difference between a “sperm provider” and “biological father” is artificial, I don’t see them as two separate options.

        Some couple stay together, some don’t. I don’t know that the research shows that the initial romance makes much of a difference. Children of divorce suffer, true. But children who were intentionally kept away from one parent, either to that parent’s abandonment, or because of the wishes of the other parent, suffer more than most.

        That’s regarding the known “sperm provider.” Regarding the anonymous one, all I can say that of my friends who were abandoned by their fathers after divorce, not one thought it would have been better if they had never known who he was.

        (I’m leaving child abuse out of the equation. Certainly no one should have children if they suspect the person they are with could be an abuser. It seems the anonymous sperm donor beats out the abuser in terms of preferability but that isn’t very high praise, is it?)

        • BTW In contrast to women who purchase sperm, I doubt that women who “settle” as their reproductive years near the end do so on strictly eugenic grounds, so the type of using you are talking is really theoretical.

          Quite the opposite- some of them marry someone whose looks (genetics) doesn’t quite ignite their sexual passion, but who they perceive as good father material. How good is this choice? It really depends on the individual.

          • I meant father material in terms of character- responsibility, commitment, stability.

          • I agree, though I suppose we are both just working off what we assume to be true–there’s no data on this.

            But the way you have put this makes me think of saying this a slightly different point. When a woman chooses a sperm provider, there’s not much to go on besides the major physical characteristics. Sometimes there may be some information about talents–musical or sports or what not. But mostly it’s height, weight/build, hair color, eye color. (Interestingly, SAT scores, which often seem to accompany listings for egg providers, are generally not given for sperm providers.) In a way this encourages a sort of eugenics–you have to make a choice and you have only these characteristics to go on, so you make a choice according to these characteristics.

            By contrast, when a woman selects a man she’ll be raising a child with (and I know she doesn’t “select in the same way a person selects a sperm provider from a catalog) she has before her an entire person, not simply a handful of characteristics. While she might compromise on overall romance, surely things like compatability and general suitability as a parent must/should figure in to her decision.

            I suppose what this illustrates is that the job “sperm donor” is a totally different job from the one “father” or “co-parent.” That said, it’s not surprising a person might look at different qualitities when trying to fill the different jobs.

  8. Sex is fairly easily available to young women as well Kisarita 🙂 Even so, I agree with your comment. I would ask Theresa if she thought any child produced by sperm donors feels a sense of loss. Loss of not knowing from who they were made. Loss of not feeling complete..not knowing their “roots”….and not ever having a say in whether they can ever know.

    • I’m sure that some people concieved by third-party gametes–egg or sperm–feel a loss. I’m also sure that some people do not feel a sense of loss. (I’m sure of both of these things because I’ve met or corresponded with people who say these things are true for them.) These statements may raise a host of questions, some of which have been discussed at some lenght elsewhere on this blog.

      I know this isn’t the context in which the discussion arose here, but it is worth remembering that conceiving via intercourse does not ensure that any more information about the man who provided the sperm will be available, nor does it ensure he’ll stick around to raise a child. This is part of why I wrote quite a bit about how the one-night-stand guy and the sperm donor might be comparable. The man who stays around to raise the child needs to be considered differently, I think.

  9. @Kisarita — I agree with you: if the people do parent their children and manage their household reasonably well, of course I think that’s good for the children and the parents. Also, our social standards of waiting for a partner before having kids, and of having kids with your long-term partner, seem like healthy choices to me (not the only healthy choices, but certainly good ones).

    My point was just that if a person rushes into marriage *primarily* to obtain the biological means of bearing a child, that’s not necessarily a good foundation for the outcome we all desire. Yes, you’re providing your child with 2 parents, which can be a huge benefit, but you’re also jumping into a relationship that will affect the child’s and your lives forever.

    Stable family situations with healthy conflict resolution are best for kids. If two people can create that from a last-ditch, desperate attempt to mate, then it’s in spite of the circumstances. Thus, I don’t *automatically* admire a couple in a rushed marriage more than someone who makes the commitment to have a child on her own rather than settle for the wrong partner.

  10. @Lee, I’ve read a fair amount about children conceived with donor sperm. Naturally there is an element of mystery in their lives, that was not found in my own life. Whether a particular child sees that as a loss, and how significant that is in his or her life, depends on the individual.

    Is it better to get married at the last possible fertile moment, or to conceive on your own at the last possible moment? I think the implications of being raised by a single parent and having an anonymous biological father should be weighed against the implications of being raised by a couple in a hasty, ill-considered marriage. The right answer will probably depend on the people involved.

  11. Theresa – marriage and/or having children are probably the two major decisions in one’s life that have life long and beyond consequences – at least in my mind. Coming at this from the child’s perspective, it would seem to me that a child has a basic human right to know from whom they came from genetically. I am not denying that there may be some children produced from ART that would not avail themselves of finding out about their bio-father. That said, in my opinion, as it also seems to be yours, that decision should rest on the “individual” child.

    Regarding whether it is better to get married at the last possible fertile moment or to conceive on your own via ART using donor sperm, it seems to me that if a woman found themselves in this situation, I would wonder if they should even have children at all. The decision to not have children for so many years prior was a conscious choice and knowing that the biological clock was running down now causes the woman to want to have children? Is that sufficient reason enough to have a child? I don’t have a right or wrong answer as there is so much variability in factors between people. Having two children myself, I am pretty confident there are good reasons to have children younger in life and to have both bio-parents available who are committed to each other and the child’s well being. That, in my mind, remains the ideal but I also realize we live in a world far from ideals. Still doesn’t negate most from thinking about it or striving for it.

    • This isn’t really directly responsive to your comment, I’m afraid, but somehow this is what I find myself thinking.

      There are some people who would be terrific parents but who, either singly or in pairs, can only become parents through adoption or third-party gametes. The fact these folks would end up raising kids who were not genetically related to one or both of them doesn’t seem to me to be relevant to the question whether they should be parents. But the fact that they end up using adoption seems to give us a right to opine about their fitness. To some degree this spills over into ART where many people seem to be comfortable with some sort of screening process.

      By contrast, when people conceive via sex, we (as a society I mean) don’t get to weigh in beforehand and determine their fitness to parent. But really, I don’t see that the fact that people can engage in procreative sex necessarily makes them particualrly qualified to parent as a couple.

      There’s a separate question about whether the child should have access to information about the person or people who provided the genetic materials used to create them. I’m increasingly persuaded that some kids will grow up to care about that and so it probably makes sense to me to have that option available to them.

      I don’t know what to say about the issue of timing. If you have looked for a suitable mate with whom to raise children and you just haven’t found the right person, than I can see why women might consider single-parenting using ART. There are always trade-offs in life and in parenting. You get a bit more creaky with age, but you also gain some wisdome. Who can say?

    • Actually Lee why do you think just because people didn’t have children earlier in life, does that mean they never should? The health risks during pregnancy are slightly higher, true, but I can’t think of any other reason that age makes a difference. If any, and this is of course a terrible generalization, I would say a more mature parent is probably a better one.
      Nor do you have any way of knowing why they didn’t have children. In the case of many its because they wanted to be married first.

  12. I am all for people having children at any age as long as they can reasonably provide for them until they are adults. I have known many wonderful people who began their family while in their 40s and in some cases, that is when they got married as well. So, I do agree with you. I only was making the point that people in their 20s and 30s generally (and I too hate generalizing – believe it or not!) have age on their side when in comes to fertility, energy, etc. I will say this though about money and families…I think when you need money the most (usually when starting a family when young), you least have it and when you don’t really need the money (usually after the kids are gone), you have it the most. I understand why but it seems very backwards to me.

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