Briefly Noted: On the Ethics of Anonymous Sperm Donation

Not that I watch Vince Vaughn movies. But, Delivery Man, starring Vaughn and released last fall, tells the story of an anonymous sperm donor who had “fathered” over 500 children. The premise of the movie is that the anonymous donor’s children are suing to find his identity. It is billed as comedy with a theme of redemption as the hapless Vaughn chooses to take responsibility for his many children and begins to meet them. The movie is intended to be humorous, but it brings to light an important ethical question which perhaps has not been adequately considered by the evangelical church.

Writers such as Leslie Fain have begun to address the ethics of sperm donation.[1] Fain’s recent article raises questions about the nature of human reproduction and the role of technology in relation to it. She wonders whether this is yet another area where technological advances are not yet accompanied by adequate ethical evaluation.

Another writer, Jennifer Bleyer, recounts the story of a serial sperm donor who has “ . . . handed over his sperm to 85 women and now has 24 donor children, with five more on the way.”[2] According to Bleyer, this donor spends up to 3 hours a day corresponding with potential recipients, even offering the convenience of curb side pickup. “Prior conversations with the recipient have assured him that, should the transaction fully succeed, the resulting child is free to inquire about him or meet him when ready, but there’s no expectation of a relationship or regular contact.”[3]

More common than personal, individual donation is the process of anonymous donation through sperm banks. Bleyer notes there is a “ . . . relative lack of oversight with which sperm banks operate. . . . Some banks are suspected of knowingly creating dozens and even hundreds of offspring of a single donor.”[4]

The current trend is a push toward eliminating anonymity among donors. However, as Bleyer notes, “Many former donors do not want to be tracked down—they were broke college kids when they handed over their semen for $35 or so a cup and are now grown men with their own children.”[5] Fain records one former donor’s comments: “Some [donors] are quite frightened at the prospect of contact [with their children], some have not told their families.”[6] So there is a sense of shame, or at least discomfort, among some former donors.

What is the real ethical concern? On the surface, it appears that these sperm donors, anonymous or known, are doing a moral good by providing a means for infertile couples to conceive and bear children. This satisfies a utilitarian approach to human reproduction, but fails to consider the larger moral picture.

There are a number of ethical concerns with AID (artificial insemination by donor). One concern is that the means of obtaining donations often involves pornographic stimulation. Another concern is the commodification of humans.[7] AID often involves prospective customers sorting through catalogs that outline all of the vital statistics of the men: height, weight, hair color, blood type, education level, occupation, and ethnicity.[8] The ability to shop for the optimal genetic material for your prospective child seems strikingly superficial. Imagine the moral outrage if the measurable attributes of spouses were actively considered as the primary basis for selection.

A third concern is the fact that many children who are the products of anonymous AID are unaware of their family medical history. With anonymity, there is no way to ensure the dozens of children which may have been “fathered” by a donor might not be intermarrying. A fourth concern is the disorder which AID introduces into the notion of “family.” The donor is intentionally fathering a child with no intention of fulfilling his parental responsibilities.[9] The resulting family experiences a relational imbalance, with a child formed from genetic material from the mother and not the father. John Jefferson Davis notes that this can be a continued source of tension in these composite families.[10]

A fifth concern is the continued cost to the psychological well-being of the resultant child. This concern surfaces in the testimonies of many donor-fathered children, such as Colton Wooten whose account in the NY Times Opinion section in 2011 records the difficulties he faced growing up disconnected from his genetic father.[11] But shouldn’t Colton be glad just to be alive? Alana Newman notes, “We’ve created a class of people who are manufactured, and treat them as less-than-fully human” by denying them knowledge of their parentage and expecting them to be grateful for mere existence.[12]

So, for what it’s worth, on AID and other issues related to technological developments, the church and its leaders need work hard to sustain a pace of ethical reflection which is not outstripped by the pace of technological research and development. Even some Hollywood screenwriters have recognized this truth and have made it the major theme of movies such as Terminator. Not that I watch Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

[1] Leslie Fain, “Sperm Donation in the Wild, Wild West,” The Human Life Review, 39 no 4: 88–100.

[2] Jennifer Bleyer, “A Conception Conundrum,” Psychology Today, November/December 2013: 81.

[3] Bleyer, 81.

[4] Bleyer, 82.

[5] Bleyer, 86.

[6] Fain, 97.

[7] See the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the ethics of the donation process: Don Troop, “The Student Body, FOR SALE,” Chronicle of Higher Education 59, no. 24, February 22, 2013: A16–A19.

[8] For instance, see this information about the Family Funny Man, Donor #13108:

[9] Fain, 90.

[10] John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 3rd ed.  (Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 2004), 72–80.

[11] Colton Wooten, “A Father’s Day Plea to Sperm Donors,” New York Times, June 18, 2011. [Accessed online, 2/17/14]

[12] Alana Newman, “What are the Rights of Donor-Conceived People” Human Life Review, 39 no. 4: 121.

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  1 Comment

  1. Stephanie Blessing   •  

    As a Christian who is donor conceived (and I’m also Southern Baptist) it’s so good to see someone in the Protestant world talk about the harm that third party reproduction does. I would love to be able to talk with my Christian brothers and sisters about it and what the Bible says about families, sex, and parenting, but my point of view isn’t a popular one.

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