The first documented pregnancy via donor sperm is said to have occurred at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1884. According to reports that later appeared in the American journal ‘Medical World’, Dr. William Pancoast, presented with an “azoospermic” husband and his eager wife, anesthetized the woman under the guise of performing a routine examination and instead inseminated her with the sperm of the medical student deemed “most attractive” by his peers. This procedure was performed without the husband or wife knowing about it and only upon news of the woman’s pregnancy did the doctor reveal his methods to the father-to-be. The husband, by all accounts, was quite pleased, and asked that the physician never tell his wife by what manner she became pregnant.
And so it began. News of the historic insemination, when it was finally reported some 25 years later, provoked heated debate, and for nearly 60 years after, whenever artificial insemination was publicized in medical journals, the public outrage was definitive; religious institutions, world parliaments and courts throughout the United States decried the procedure, citing the “illegitimacy” of a donor-conceived child, who was clearly born, they said, out of wedlock.
The laws began to change, though, in the mid-1960s, and by the time I was conceived at the University of North Carolina in 1973, many (but not all) states stipulated that if a “wife was artificially inseminated with donor semen under a physician's supervision, and with her husband's consent, the law would treat the husband as if he were the natural father of the DI child.” The statutes passed also made it clear that the donor who provided a doctor or clinic with sperm would “not be considered the legal father of any child conceived by that sperm.” The door was open. My parents were some of the first people to walk through.
It was the beginning of the modern fertility industry—and in many ways it felt like the Wild West: sperm was still delivered fresh, not frozen; no one kept track of how many children were born from each donor; and genetic screenings were minimal. In the 1970s, most parents simply placed their trust in the pioneering, often charismatic, doctors, who selected the ‘best donors’ for their clients and prescribed, “Do not ever tell the children.”
Today no one knows exactly how many US children are born each year with the aid of donor sperm, but the New York Times estimates between 30-60,000, and concedes that, because there are no mandatory reporting systems in place, the number could be much higher. The cryobanks are thriving; they cite growing infertility among straight couples, increasing ranks of “Single Mothers By Choice,” and legal gay marriage as the reasons why. Log on to their websites and it’s “just like Zappos,” as one California Cryobank representative said. A prospective parent can pick her donor’s height, hair color, eye color, college major and religion; she can pay extra money for a donor willing to be contacted when the child turns 18; and she can even shop via a different metric—choosing her donor based on what celebrity he most resembles. Parents read essays written by the donor and see a full medical history from several generations of his family. And, since the mental health experts now recommend that donor conceived children be told early, with as much detail as possible, about their unique parentage, all of this comes as part of a dossier that will eventually pass into the hands of the offspring themselves.
Meanwhile, in recent years, there have been news programs, films, and radio shows about the lives of these children as they grow into young adults. All of them testify to the fact that these stories capture the public imagination and that the family dramas, ethical dilemmas, and identity questions they raise are in our culture to stay. Most of these projects feature donor-conceived teens or 20-somethings, thanks to the surge in donor conception circa the 1990s; but this documentary looks at these issues from the point of view of someone conceived in what might be called the “second part of the first wave.”
Along the way, it connects two distinct historical periods—the early days of an important medical practice that has now become widespread, and the mindboggling technological advances the donor conceived have at their disposal in 2017. No one could have predicted when I was born in 1974 that forty years later, home paternity tests would be on the shelves of every corner drug store and half-siblings would be able to find each other--then Facetime--via their laptop computers. Even more astounding is that websites like ancestrydna.com and 23andme.com have completely changed the game; the larger the DNA databases grow, the more likely that genetic genealogy will render the concept of an “anonymous” donation obsolete.