Sameness and Difference: The Local Farmer and The DIY Sperm Donor

Though it has been a while (I’ve been on vacation) I thought I’d press on a little bit with the thoughts about the DIY sperm donors I put up last time.    Here’s the thing that struck me:  In general, I worry about the DIY sperm donor.  (You can read about these concerns in earlier posts.)   But in a broad way this seems inconsistent with my general preference for the small local farmer over industrialized agriculture.    I’ve been thinking about how to square these inclinations. 

It seems to me there are two possible directions to go.  You could say that the DIY sperm donor isn’t really like the local farmer or you could say that they two are similiar and thus I need to shift my judgment as to one of them in order to be consistent.   What I mean by that is that I either need to prefer both the DIY sperm producer and the local farmer or I need to prefer neither.      

My tentative conclusion is that while there are similarities between the local farmer and the DIY sperm donor, there are also important differences that might warrant different treatment.

The prime similarity is that the local farmer and the DIY sperm donor are both small players in a field dominated by larger and more industrialized enterprises.   I think in a general way, I have an initial bias in favor of the small local enterprise.  That’s partly just the David/Goliath thing, I guess.

So what are the differences that might justify my leeriness about the DIY sperm donor.   By thinking about this I might be able to work out whether this leeriness is fully or partially justified.

The first one I’d note is actually one that cuts in favor of the sperm provider.   The farmer is in it for profit while the sperm provider (in the instances I’m talking about) is not.   In general, you might worry that the profit motive could lead people to cut corners–certainly we see enough of that in the world around us, right?   Of course, very few people become small-scale local farmers because they think they’ll end up rich, but still, they need to make a living.

Oddly, the absence of the profit motive for the sperm provider isn’t entirely reassuring to me.   I say this with some caution, because I’m not sure why I’m being so suspicious about this.   I mean, I accept that women who are surrogates are at least in part motivated by an altruistic desire to helpe someone else out.  Why is it harder to say the same for the sperm provider?   Is that just the work of gender–women help people and men don’t?   You do have to wonder.

But however you deal with the motivation issues, there’s a whole different set of factors that make me feel more confident about buying my produce from the local farmer.   That farmer values me as a repeat customer and also as a source of new customers.    Over time—week after week at the farmer’s market–we build a relationship.   It is this relationship that leads me to trust the farmer.

This dynamic isn’t present with the DIY sperm donor–or at least, not to the same degree.  The “repeat customer” potential is limited and the possibility of the on-going relationship–where you buy your vegetables each week from the same people–is basically non-existent.   And it is the relationship you develop that makes me trust the farmer, I think.

I know this is scattered, but it is making me think you can like the little guy, favor David over Goliath, shop at your local farmer’s market and still worry about the DIY sperm provider.   I really do think the issue comes down to motivation, probably.

On a related topic:   I’ve read scattered news of Trent Arsenault since I’ve been on the road–the FDA is continuing its pursuit, I believe.   That’s the story that started this thread. I’ve also gotten some comments specifically about him that I think are close to the margin of what I’d allow here.   Remember that the point of the discussion is the broader question of systems of providing sperm outside of the highly structured/commercialized one that is dominated by the big sperm banks.


23 responses to “Sameness and Difference: The Local Farmer and The DIY Sperm Donor

  1. Its kind of an odd comparison to draw. Stated bluntly what bothers you about the do-it-yourself sperm donor is the chance that he might become a legal father as well as a biological one once his offspring are born. One cannot compare a local farmer with a do-it-yourself sperm donor unless one thinks of children as a commodity on the open market and you certainly don’t mean to do that. It would be wisest to drop that comparison altogether. I reject the comparison out of hand and it sounds as if you do as well you just were not sure how to articulate it?

    • It is kind of an odd comparison, but given my general preference for the small local producer, it seems a fair one to think about.

      I don’t think that what bothers me is simply that the DIY guy might be the legal father. It’s that people are planning on him not being the legal father and yet he might end up being that. The disconnect between expectations/intentions and reality seems to me problematic. People get hurt when the law creates relationships that are not the ones that they wish to have or the ones they expect.

      That said I think the staement about children as a commodity is probably right.

      • Maybe I did not articulate very well but it sounds like you get the drift of what I am saying – your chief concern is not the sperm or its quality etc but the disposition of the child once its born and whether or not the people who want to raise that child can successfully do so without interference from the child’s biological father. That makes the child the object of your concern and that is when the farmer analogy must go out the window for me. I hope for you as well.

        • If you still have the gnawing feeling that your rejection of the DIY guy is at odds with your core beliefs and you can’t put your finger on it, I think maybe I see a conflict. Tell me what you think:
          You believe strongly that a sperm donor sells nothing more than sperm, not his offspring nor his obligation or right to involvement with his offspring. This view, you’ve said makes gamete selling and giving OK whereas if you think he’s actually giving up his offspring then it becomes something else and not OK in your view.

          I’ve said many times and even sent copies of the paperwork the donors sign at those large cryobanks where they agree to waive their parental rights to any of their offspring born as a result of their donation and where they also agrree never to seek out a relationship with their offspring etc. I did that to point out that the sperm donor agreement contemplates performance of duties not just as a donor but more critically as a biological parent. Part of the service being offered really is that promise to be absent from the life of his biological offspring. But this is a rather invisible part of the process for the public and intended parents and even you. Youl just keep saying he has no parental rights because he was never a parent so therefore all he’s selling is sperm. The large corporate banks make it easier for you to think that way. The DIY guy disturbs you because that critical part of his services is not so invisible its much more out in the open because it seems so tenuous and unenforceable when the intended parents know who the biological father is and he knows who they are.

          In short I think your concerns highlight a conflict in your previous belief that all one buys or gets from a sperm donor is sperm. Its much much more than that, they are buying his promise to estrange himself for 18 years minimum after his offspring are born. Make of that what you will but there is where I see you have a concern in conflict with your beliefs.

  2. Oh I know your going to reject my analysis of the comparison because to you sperm is just a commodity. But it seems to me that what your concerned with is not the sperm and its wholesomeness so much as whether or not he’ll be obligated to support his offspring or seek visitation with his offspring etc.

    I think this highlights the fact that the objective of a sperm transaction, commercial or altruistic, is to obtain that man’s offspring free and clear of him and his involvement. If it were only sperm people were after your comparison to the local farmer would be fine. There is a contract of sorts between a person that obtains sperm and the person they obtain it from; As a sperm donor the man has to provide sperm that is STD free then as a biological father he has to stay away from his offspring for 18 years. Its that second part of the agreement that has you kfetching about the do-it-yourself guy. It seems more likely that he could undermine the whole deal when there is no intermediary concealing identities right? He knows who you are and can find his offspring early if he’s r really pushy. He might go to court and try and get visitation or want to provide support and interfere with the family structure established by the sperm purchaser. The law in some states might favor him doing that and view it as an act of parental responsibility to be encouraged.

    Your previous post could not be better for describing the harm of inequality where you go over how you can separate states where the manner of conception matters to who is a parent and states where it does not matter. Interestingly enough this bothers you this inequality and lack of consistency across state lines bums you out just as it does me. We have polar opposite goals but the lack of consistency and inequality it creates is undeniable. Who is and who is not a legal parent and what does it turn on and shouldn’t that be something that is consistent so that its fair?

    • Surely we agree on one out of two here, and really we may agree on two out of two, though there is the inevitable disagreement about DNA.

      The patchwork nature of things–one rule in one state, a different rule in another, and people crossing state lines all the time–is a problem. Agreed. It can only lead to trouble. If there’s a rationale for choosing one test for who is a parent, then that rationale would justify the same choice in all states.

      And you and I also agreee on a broader consistent point. We’d both treat all children the same without regard to the manner of conception–right? You’d say DNA is all–no matter how the DNA comes together. I’d say DNA is nothing–no matter how the DNA comes together.

      I’m quite sure we’d also both say that equality is terrific. Who can be against equality? But of course that doesn’t predict outcomes because we won’t agree on which things are important in deciding when things are equal and when similar treatment must be afforded.

      • We really do agree here. I love the law. I love it when things are clear and fair. I like the idea of a clean set of rules. I think it should be constantly corrected whenever inequities are discovered striving for true equality. If I had been less of a hellion as a kid I might have tried to get a law degree. Not that I would have succeeded, but I might have tried and in the process learned little something. Hind sight is 20/20.

  3. Julie,

    “Systems of providing sperm outside of the highly structured/commercialized one that is dominated by the big sperm banks.”

    If the industry actually was structured correctly so that the donor conceived individual would never have concerns/harms then I would agree with you. What the current structured/commercialized industry has failed to do right is numerous and like any profitable, in it for the big bucks industry – it has no intention of looking after those who lose (donor conceived) in the process.

    Whereas what your concerns are for the individual donor actually come across as taking away/harming the recipient of the sperm (parent). Which in reality is not true – a relationship with the other genetic parent takes nothing away from the social/legal parent. In reality if the social/legal parent could only open their mind they would see the added benefit of having a child whose identity is whole and well rounded and unhindered by what ifs and who is feelings. (terribly run on sentence – need more coffee)

    What / how you lay it out is the same old pattern seen in adoption. The parent wants and gets – the child has to deal with the fall out of the choices made.

    Further, the way the industry works now in regards to family health history is incredibly harmful and again, they do not care – just like the adoption industry. Profit is the name of the game and putting systems and processes in place like that take away some of the profit.

    • Perhaps you are right that theoretically the industry could be structured in ways that would be fine. Certainly there is reason to think that the for-profit strucutre of many commercial sperm banks might lead them to make choices that we ought to suspect. I will think about these points further, but I am inclined to say that I agree with you here.

      I also agree–in a general way–with what you say about the genetic parent and the social parent. In the best of all possible worlds it would be true that the genetic parent would add and not subtract. The problem is that the genetic parent does in fact threaten the social parent in many instances. When I read the comments from people who insist that the only true parent is the genetic parent or when I read laws that grant legal priority to the genetic parent I understand the reluctance of the social parent to allow the genetic parent to play a role. I think if the law were clear–and if the culture were clear–that the social parent had some unquestionable footing than the picture you paint–with room for everyone–would be more attainable. And that would be a better thing, I think.

  4. Adopted ones is right. Julie it really does come off as if your chief concern is to keep the child away from his or her genetic family. You want the law to sequester the child from his or her relatives….why? Why can’t you find a way that the child can have all that they deserve and all that is theirs? Why must the relationship with the social parent come at the expense of relationships with half their genetic relatives? You must see the math there. Its a matter of addition and subtraction. The child really does have paternal relatives they are just being withheld in order to supplant them with the relatives of their mother’s partner. That all seems very unnecessary and unfair. Why can’t they be part of their paternal family it is theirs it does belong to them or they belong to it since they descended from it. And I mean belong to in the scientific family group sort of way flora fauna and all.

    • Again, I don’t think that the genetic parent has to be sequestered, as I just wrote to the adopted ones. I can easily imagine–and don’t have to imagine, because I actually know–instances where the genetic parent plays a role in the child’s life. I think the law would facilitate that if it clearly recognized and protected the relationship between social parent and child. That’s what would allow the social parent to also engage with the genetic parent, isn’t it?

  5. Julie said: “I think the law would facilitate that if it clearly recognized and protected the relationship between social parent and child. That’s what would allow the social parent to also engage with the genetic parent, isn’t it?”

    Julie – to me that is the prime reason for having a court record in addition to the fact that the current industry does not have any hard and fast record keeping laws that are enforced. For far too long they have been allowed free range and now it is just a mess. Without some system in place to protect the best interests of the child, the profit and share holders are the rule makers.

    In my family having openness for one of my siblings many decades ago worked. It worked at a time when closed was pretty much the only method for stranger adoption. It worked because mom and dad were NOT insecure and had no concerns on their status to us. It is the parents job to be the adult before they become parents. If they haven’t worked through their issues and then willingly with forethought become parents ,then frankly they never will fix themselves and the kids will suffer because of it.

    • I agree that it is the parents’ job to be the grown-ups and all that, but if the law gives the genetic progenitor a superior right to claim parentage, simply because of the genetic link, then a thinking adult might choose an unknown provider. Indeed, even though I am concerned (and I know some of you may not believe this) about the issues that arise from use of anonymous providers, I might counsel a friend to do this. It’s crazy to bring a child into the world in circumstances of too much uncertainty. (I suppose this reflects my bias that stability is important for kids.)

      I don’t think we disagree here, actually. The question, for me, is what set of legal rules (and social norms) will best arrive at what might actually be a shared vision. To me there is a critical difference betweeen the assertion that the genetic progenitor is an important person and an assertion that the genetic progenitor is the true parent of the child. The former need not undermine the claims of a social parent while the latter obviously does so.

      • Julie the best and most stable senario for the social parent would be to have the genetic parent actually give the child up for adoption in a court of law. Yes I suppose this would mean that the genetic parent would be a legal parent for a few minutes, but really look at all that is gained:
        You ensure that all people without offspring become legal parents of other people’s offspring in a similar fashion documented in court intended to protect the interests of the adopting parent the genetic parent and the child. The process is set up to identify instances of cooersion, bribery and trafficking and any child who is not the offspring of one of his/her parents should have the right to have that double check process before that person was named as their legal parent. It equalizes what offspring have a right to expect and what people who have offspring have a right to expect and what people who don’t have offspring have a right to expect. You’d arrive at the very same conclusion in a way that is fair to the players and a way that records the identity of the genetic parent and of course I think adoptees have every right to those records though they don’t currently.People who reproduce really are the only ones who can be held accountable for their actions; ultimately the 150 offspring issue boils down to that guy allowing his seed to be indiscriminately spread by a for-proffit corporation. It’s reckless and irresponsible of that guy not to be on top of the health of each of his offspring when they are born, for how can he make good reproductive decisions completely in the dark? You know I help folks look for their fathers who were donors and some of these men have had horribly disabled children – repeatedly. Had they been aware of this they might have stopped reproducing at 10 rather than 20 or whatever. Not that its so horrible for disabled people to be born, but raising disabled people takes intensive effort and many of those children were relinquished by their social families for adoption – had the donor been aware that his offspring were going to be given up for adoption he might have not donated or might have tried to have them raised by his own family members. I’m just saying forcing donors to go thru the adoption process with their offspring would put a halt to donor overproduction. Only good can come of it.

  6. What a whacky comparison. The big sperm banks are indeed like the terrible industrial farms in that they are just out for profit and are evil, and the DIY guy is indeed like the small farmer in that there might be some risks, but they’re both out for profit too. The analogy fails because we need food, but we don’t need sperm banks. Growing food is a good thing, donor conception (and all unmarried conception) is a bad thing.

    • You’re painting with a bit of a broad brush here. Not all big sperm banks are bad and not all large scale agriculture is either. I can see that if one accepts the premise that donor conception is bad then you’d see the analogy break down. But I don’t accept that premise (and many others don’t either) and so then either you have to accept the premise or find some other distinction.

  7. I can’t relate to the analogy since i don’t find sperm at all comparable to food.

  8. Julie said: “I don’t think we disagree here, actually. The question, for me, is what set of legal rules (and social norms) will best arrive at what might actually be a shared vision. To me there is a critical difference betweeen the assertion that the genetic progenitor is an important person and an assertion that the genetic progenitor is the true parent of the child. The former need not undermine the claims of a social parent while the latter obviously does so.”

    Julie – the legal status is determined if there are court records. The child also knows who takes care of them and who they call mom and/or dad. I know that sounds simplistic but you ask any adopted child who mom and dad are (or whatever variation) and if they have other parents too and they will provide you with the heirarchy (sp?). Laws/court records plus who parents them and who else is a parent.

    I think the biggest stumbling block is the challenge to people who are not adopted / donor conceived being able to remove the bias/mindset that you can only have one mother / one father. Those inside have no issues with that mindset because ours has always been broadened – just like any changing mindsets of society, it takes time and willingness to see another side.

  9. I don’t see much of a future for sperm banks. Freezing sperm damages the DNA. People will be afraid to use frozen sperm, and switch to DIY, because the sperm is fresh.

    • I think many people will keep going through commercial sperm banks as long as they are working through mainstream fertility centers. Those centers are leery of fresh sperm unless it is a partner’s. And it’s all set up to be readily coordinated. Plus I’m sure many people assume it is safer–because of the six month quarantine. I’ve not seen statistics (though one of the folks who comment here might have them), but I’d guess the DIY stuff is not putting a big dent in the commercial market. I suppose your question is whether the appropriate word to add to the end of that sentence is “yet?”

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