Altruism and Egotism

I’ve been discussing Trent Arsenault and the question of private not-for-money sperm donation.   (I think he really is a donor, by the way.  No money is involved in these transactions.)  One question that came up was Arsenault’s specific motivation for his conduct and I commented–perhaps unfairly–that it seemed egotistical.    Now I cannot resist commenting on this story involving another altruistic (?) sperm donor.  

Bill Johnson is a conservative Christian from Alabama (in the US.)  He ran for governor in 2009, but didn’t get very far.   After that he went to New Zealand to do earthquake relief work.   And while he was there he offered himself up as a sperm donor. 

Now New Zealand pretty closely regulates provision of sperm.  Among other things, they have a limit of no more than four families per provider.   (This might make special sense in NZ which is a relatively small and relatively isolated community.)   Johnson was apparently unconcerned with this limit and, like Trent Arsenault, was working outside the regulatory system.   (He was also acting without the knowledge of his wife, who remained here in the US.)

There’s a certain irony in the fact that certainly some of the nine women he provided sperm to were lesbians seeking to start families–families he apparently believes to be immoral and illegitimate.   But from my point of view far worse is the fact that he apparently didn’t plan to tell the women he was giving sperm to about the extent of his activities until after they became pregnant.  (In this he is to be distinguished, I think, from Arsenault who has been quite transparent on this point.)

Now what’s the motivation for this conduct which seems rather at odds with Johnson’s articulated belief system?   It’s not money.   But it’s also doesn’t have much to do with being helpful (which is what altruism is about.)    The story in the paper says:

‘He said the urge to become a biological father was “a need that I have”.’

I’d read that as saying this is all about him (which is entirely consistent with his failure to fully disclose his activities to the women he gave sperm to.)   Perhaps it also explains the apparent hypocrisy–principles are for other people, but his needs take priority.  Hence, whatever altruistic purpose he might have served, this is really all about egotism.

It seems fairly clear to me that Johnson thinks of himself as a parent to the children that may be created and I don’t know enough about NZ law to know what legal status he may have.  But this whole story seems to me a pretty good argument in favor of regulation.  Unlike Aresnault, this guy seems to me to something of a menace.

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23 responses to “Altruism and Egotism

  1. why is he a menace any more than any other sperm donor?
    Because he exceeded the donor limit? Some sperm banks don’t even have donor limits. Note that Arsenault exceeded more than he.
    Because he didn’t tell them that he had fathered other children? Neither do most sperm banks.

  2. I just read the article. It says Johnson was providing money to the mothers and wanted to be involved in the children’s life but only to the extent that the mothers would allow.
    Julie this sounds like a recipient’s dream come true. Why are you calling him a menace?

    • The questions you ask in the two comments above are certainly fair–why is he a menace? Why is he any different from Arsenault? Why is he any different from a paid sperm donor? I’ve kind of rolled these together, but you’re right to raise any and all of them.

      I suppose what I’m reacting to here has something to do with honesty. He’s a menace because he doesn’t tell people who are dealing with him the truth. He’s a menace because he says one thing and does another. He’s a menace because he is acting for his own interests first (his need to be a biological father) without much/any concern for anything/anyone else. (You could even count that he’s helping to create children without any regard to the sorts of families they’ll be in, which is something he has said matters to him.)

      Maybe my judgment it too harsh and surely it is worth considering the points you mention. Probably tells you more about me than about him in the end.

  3. I also do not see why, if Johnson and his children are already known to each other, why there is any need for him to register with a sperm- donor registry, anymore than any other father who reproduces with multiple women.

  4. There are a couple of issues I take with this post, and a few concepts I’d like to share.

    First, I’ve spoken to Bill Johnson, and like most media outcries, this has been a fairly inaccurate and dramatized version of the truth. It will be up to Bill as to whether or not he shares his side, but I hope he will. I encourage everyone to take news stories with a grain of salt, and realize that they *rarely* tell the whole story, and very often distort what they do tell to make it seem much more interesting than it is.

    Second, I take issue with the notion that a man admitting that he has a biological drive to procreate is inherently selfish and hypocritical, and by any stretch makes him a menace. There is a social “norm” these days that seems to make it not only accepted by almost required to vilify natural male behaviors. Why is a man’s desire to procreate any less worthy of admiration than a woman’s desire to procreate? All of these women who are looking desperately for a sperm donor are driven by the EXACT same biological drive, only we get to “ooooh” and “awwww” for them because the image of a pregnant woman fills us with joy and happiness.

    Not all women have this biological drive, and not all feel it strongly. But many women feel it very strongly, and some to the point where they are driven to insane lengths to have biological children, even when there are many other options for raising children. Where women are driven by their biology to carry, birth and nurture children, men are driven by their biology to procreate with fertile women. This is NORMAL and NATURAL. The fact that some men feel this more strongly than others is also normal, just as it is for the women who feel it strongly. The men who donate their sperm free of charge to women who desperately want children have found a mutually beneficial, ethical and HONEST way to satisfy this drive. I don’t see this being any less altruistic than the donor who does it because their favorite Aunt had a hard time getting pregnant and they want to make the world a better place. Both reasons serve the higher good, and if we can step outside of the social expectation to make everything male dirty and disgusting, this will be plainly obvious.

  5. Quoted from above: “He’s a menace because he doesn’t tell people who are dealing with him the truth. He’s a menace because he says one thing and does another. He’s a menace because he is acting for his own interests first (his need to be a biological father) without much/any concern for anything/anyone else. (You could even count that he’s helping to create children without any regard to the sorts of families they’ll be in, which is something he has said matters to him.)”

    Until you speak with someone or at least hear their side, it’s a wee bit dangerous to make such vast assumptions as to what their actions or motivations are.

    When judging the value of something, let’s compare it to the other option. In this case, it’s the sperm banks.

    1 – The motivations for men who donate to sperm banks are the same, with the added motivation of money. They are acting for their own interests. But they are somehow exempt from being menaces?

    2 – There is very little regulation of sperm banks in terms of HOW they verify their donors, how they limit the number of children produced, etc, and they OFTEN have been caught saying one thing and doing another, and outright lying. I’m not saying this makes duplicitous behavior ok, I am saying that vilifying private donors ad exalting sperm banks is an inaccurate representation of reality.

    3 – As for the donor’s regard for the kind of families children will be born into – who do you think has more interest in this: anonymous sperm bank donors who have zero visibility or input into how their sperm is used (including the creation of 150 children), or the donor who wants to meet the families face to face, talk to them, and make his own decision who to donate to?

    I hope this gives some food for thought.

    • You’re right and I’m wrong here–and I feel rather sheepish about it. I have leapt to conclusions and judged a person without having full information. That’s an error and something I ought not to have done. I should have restricted my comments to the conduct described without attaching it to any person.

      Now I do find the conduct as described somewhat problematic, but again, I must conceed that I don’t know all the facts. Beyond that, I probably wrote in too much haste.

      I’m not inclined to take down the post because I think some mistakes (mine, I mean) should stand as markers for things we do wrong. But I won’t stand by it as written and I will try to write again shortly to offer corrections in a post rather than a comment. Right now I must run to a prior commitment and so this is all I can do.

      • Sorry Julie, WordPress inserted my comment after yours but it was directed at Kisarita. As you can see from my comment I don’t think you’re that far off the mark.

      • I wouldn’t ever ask it to be taken down! Quite the opposite, I think your statements represent the reaction of many (most?) people, even if it is rather knee-jerk. That’s kind of the point – and the very set of perceptions that I want to see start to change through education and open discussion – exactly like this one. I very much appreciate that blogs like yours give a forum for the discussion, and a place to share thoughts.

    • I think it’s important to put the behaviours attributed to this man into their correct context, which is not the context of the commercialised, anonymised, unregulated sperm donation industry in the U.S. He donated his sperm in NZ, where anonymity is not the norm, where there are family limits and where altruistic donation is law. So your three points, while perhaps relevant if the events had occurred in the U.S., are irrelevant to this particular discussion.

      Recipients of donor sperm in NZ would have expectations arising from the culture of sperm donation there which is totally different from the US. It’s those expectations which will have not been met and it’s those expectations which will have given rise the public comment and media attention the issue has received locally. What this man did may have been perfectly explicable and contextual in the US and may therefore be seen there as akin to other forms of sperm donation. Not in the NZ.

      Please do not make the mistake of assuming that the particular cultural settings and social patterns which apply in the US are applicable every where sperm donation is practiced. They are not. That is why this man’s behaviour is seen as shocking and objectionable.

      • By the statement that “altruistic donation is law,” I think you mean that it is illegal to donate sperm for money. It wouldn’t really be possible to legislate someone’s virtuous thoughts when putting semen in a cup.

        I’m also fairly certain that the statement that judging someone’s behavior is hard to do when one doesn’t have the facts applies regardless of social norms. Media is media, and the news I’ve seen come out of NZ on this is exactly the same kind of “tantalizing” bits of drama I see coming out of the US. You don’t have all the facts. And until Bill Johnson decides whether or not to share his side of the story, which he may never do, all of these aspersions on his character are done in ignorance of all the facts. I do hope he will share his perspective.

        No person is faultless, and there are a few things that he did that we definitely encourage donors not to do on KDR. Those things serve as an unfortunate lesson for others, and if for no other reason, I hope he will share his side of the story so that other donors can learn from his experience and make better choices. I do NOT think that his example should be used to support the stance that private sperm donation is a negative or “menacing” thing across the board. It is a RARE person who helps others with no personal motivation.

        • The whole altruism thing is sometimes confusing to me. Suppose I am enormously gratified by having people express their gratitude to me. Then I might do nice things for them because then they thank me and then I feel good. Is that altruistic? It’s behavior motivated by my own interests that happens to mean I do good things for others. I’ll do more good things than someone who did feel so gratified at being thanked, but I’m not sure I should really be morally superior about that.

          Then again, sometimes I do think I know I should do even when I don’t want to–because I know that I should. Is that what altruism is? Is the key that I’m having a bad time of it?

          If two people do exactly the same thing, but one does it because it makes them feel good and the other does it because she thinks she should do it even though it gives her no pleasure to do it are they equally altruistic?

          And, as I think your comment suggests, why should we even care? If the thing got done it got done.

          Perhaps it makes sense to distinguish between those who do things for money and those who do things for reasons apart from money, and maybe that is all the language of altruism does for us here.

      • I know this comment has been there for a while but I wanted to take the time to (admittedly belatedly) acknowledge the point made here. Expectations are at least in part culturally specific and it is difficult for someone from outside the culture (that means me in this instance) to really appreciate what they are. I am grateful you took the time to explicate.

        At the same time, these comments highlight one of the difficulties we all face now. Cultures and the expectations that they give rise to are still (at least to some degree) still local. NZ has its own rules and expectations. But people from the US–oblivious to NZ cultural norms–travel to NZ regularly. And the ART industry is unquestionably global, though perhaps dominated by US norms. (I’m not sure about that, by the way.) Thus misunderstandings or collisons or some sort of unease are virtually certain to result.

  6. I still think the post stands as is; because its ultimately not the specific behavior of Bill Johnson that’s at stake, its about private “sperm donors”

    • I agree – it is about sperm donors in general, and Trent Arsenault and Bill Johnson are just two faces that have been given to this issue in the media.

      Here’s the thing – there are absolutely some real sleaze-balls out there who operate under the guise of “sperm donors.” There are guys who really just want to have unprotected sex, and if they can figure out how, with lesbians. There are men out there who donate via sexual intercourse (“NI”) and don’t tell their other sexual partners. There are men who donate and don’t tell their wives, and who lie about how many biological children they have. There are men who use a woman’s desperation to have a baby to get them to do things they would never do under normal circumstances.

      They exist! No one is denying that. The unfortunate thing is that these actions above are what people tend to presume about ANY man who donates sperm privately. Judgments stem from real and legitimate fears, it’s just that applying them to an entire group of people isn’t fair or accurate.

      I have met and spoken with literally hundreds of private donors, and I can tell you all that these things do NOT represent the majority. They do, however, represent the majority of the media reports. My goal is two-fold: educate people on the risks, AND educate people on the benefits. There are many, many benefits to private sperm donation. Some day I would like to see much better legislation around this that, rather than seeking to force perfectly fertile women into an overpriced medical system, simply provide a framework for private sperm donation so that the donors and women involved can protect themselves.

  7. You could simply emend the entire post by adding the phrase “If we assume that this is true….” unless the actual personality of Bill Johnson is what is disturbing you?

  8. I spend my life speaking out about the risks involved with private sperm donation HOWEVER that this is a far better option potentially than using a sperm bank. Im speaking out for children. This is NOT the kind of situation Im talking about when Im warning women. He donated through AI for free. I always advise women and couples to chosoe a man willing to donate for free, AI only as its easier to assume better intentions long term (ie that hes interested in who he is donating to and how the child is going to be raised) If we are going to crucify the motivations of sperm donors Id rather criticise those who donate through clinics – however many dont realise the implications- the fertilty industry doesnt exactly give them information about how DC children might feel never knowing where they have come from. So how can we condemn them if they dont know- Id rather condemn the industry who know better!

    I had a woman email me yesterday demanding that I remove this man from the FSDW registry. She hadnt met him there, shed met him on another site, and somehow thought I should ban him from my site for not complying with NZ regulations relating to sperm banks?! For some reason she also thought I should ban him for lying to his wife. What am I, the moral police? When choosing a donor take responsiblity for who you choose, what you ask, what health checks you get etc. But if you want a saint youll be waiting a long time. A man lying about things is human nature. so if looking for a donor privately work out what your deal breakers are and how you are going to know if youve found ‘the one’.

    I of course 100% sympathise with his wife- especially with all publicity (she was told by a journalist??) even though I can understand that in his mind this was a way to know he has bio children in the world- his wife cant have any more children. I know from speaking to thousands of donors over the years that this matters. It is a fact that most men feel uncomfortable knowing you have no bilogical children to continue the line. How explain that to your wife? What are the options? Ignore something that is obviously part of being a male (biologists would probably tell us exactly why) While in another country with an option to do that and it remain a secret (until someone blabbed to the press) I imagine he thought he could fulfil this desire but never hurt his wife. It would surely have been far worse if hed had sex or a relationship with them and wanted to raise the child/ children? (from her point of view, not the dc childrens) He didnt. He wanted to help, he wanted to know his genes would continue. He didnt get sex or money. He even helped lesbian couples despite his political party being against gay marriage. In a wierd way I admire him for that! Shows far more about what he really feels and to me that shows he may be a far better man than his colleagues who are figthing gay marriage and sitting in judgement about what people should and shouldnt want in their own lives..

    • Three cheers – I agree entirely!

    • And for what it’s worth, according to him his wife has known for some time, at least that he was donating.

      One of the things we caution donors about is ANY kind of secrecy, especially from their spouses. Beyond the obvious reasons, IF something should go wrong, like a news report or a recipient suing for child support, their spouse will be equally effected and that is a HORRIBLE way for them to find out. It’s much easier to face the music up front, and if their spouse says they aren’t comfortable with it, they shouldn’t do it. We also highly recommend that women do not work with donors who are not open with their spouses for this same reason. The last thing they want is to be caught up in the middle of someone else’s marital issues.

    • This is really another side of the altruism discussion, isn’t it? Should we generally feel better about men who provide sperm not for money? Or maybe worse about those who provide sperm purely for the money? Seems like that would make sense, but it’s interesting to think about exactly why. And then would we distinguish among the non-financial motivations of the non-compensated providers?

      And of course, just over the horizon is the contrast with women/egg providers. Given the greater complexity and risk of that process do we really expect people to become egg providers with no financial incentives of any sort?

  9. I noticed a small reference to the fact that his wife hadn’t known he was donating his sperm. While it may be ethically icky, it is not illegal. A wife does not own her husband’s sperm. He can do whatever he wants with it, and without informing or obtaining her prior consent.

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