The Paternity Problem

Seeds of doubt plague a lesbian couple in their search for sperm.

Although I'll probably always be viewed as a crackpot by the women at the workshop, it does help me focus on smaller, more immediate issues, like making decisions. P. and I both research and ponder options for months before we make decisions. It's amazing that we ever take action on anything. Setting aside all my concerns, I decide to start talking to sperm banks.

How do you find a sperm bank? The Yellow Pages? Ridiculous as it seems, there they are, right between Speedometers and Spices. I call one and tell the receptionist that my partner and I are considering artificial insemination, and ask what we should do next. She explains that they only sell sperm to physicians, but she can send me their catalogue. It's just like calling Eddie Bauer or Smith & Hawken. With one important exception: Sperm catalogues don't have a section for clearance merchandise.

Two days later, we receive a catalogue that lists occupation, hobbies, interests, and talents of each donor, along with more general physical characteristics. If you come down on the side of nurture in the nature/nurture debate, this information should have little rational bearing on sperm selection, but naturally, we are fascinated by it. The listings under hobbies, interests, and talents are heavy on sports, although there are a few musicians and a juggler. I'm drawn to a donor who lists modeling as an interest. P. accuses me of being shallow and points out a donor with excellent memory.

As we sit on the couch and peruse the catalogue together, I remember we spent last month trying to choose curtains from a catalogue. After measurements, swatch comparisons, and endless discussions about the relative merits of tab-top versus rod-pocket design, we made a decision and placed an order. If we take that experience as a measure of our decision-making process, then compare the importance of selecting curtains to selecting sperm, and factor in additions and deletions from the sperm pool, we estimate it will take us a minimum of 13 months to make a selection. Not really a fair comparison, I realize -- especially since we sent the curtains back a week after we got them.

We decide we need to talk to someone who has been through this process, so I start calling friends.

Chris and her partner Rachel had what they refer to as "the world's first accidental lesbian pregnancy." They began the insemination process using a friend's sperm, and eventually decided to buy sperm from a sperm bank. Chris said they looked at catalogues from four different clinics and selected a donor from a clinic in another state. When Chris was about to ovulate, she called the sperm bank to arrange the shipment, and her health clinic to set up an appointment for insemination. The following morning, she was told the sperm had not arrived at the health clinic, and as far as Chris knows, it never did. Chris and Rachel took it as a sign that they should use a sperm bank closer to home.

They chose a local sperm bank and selected a list of five potential donors. When insemination day came, their first choice was unavailable, so they inseminated with sperm from bachelor number two. It wasn't until Chris found out she was pregnant that she realized she hadn't paid much attention to the details in this donor's profile, since she assumed she would be using her first choice. She went back and read the profile written by someone at the sperm bank.

"He was the one donor we chose whose write-up made no mention of whether he was good looking," Chris said.

She called the sperm bank and asked about the donor's looks, only to be told he was "one of the most interesting people" the clinic staff knew.

"Wrong answer," Chris said.

Ultimately, Chris and Rachel realized that looks are subjective, and their baby is beautiful. When I tell Chris about the model on our donor list, she reminds me that many models today look like heroin addicts. I thank her for her input and add another six months to our decision-making timeline.

Since we began this process, I've realized several important things. First, the decision to have a child is one that should be made privately, between the prospective parents. To invite unknown technicians, health-care providers, and sperm donors into the decision-making process creates huge, almost insurmountable obstacles. But if we decide to go ahead with this, we'll have to get used to the intrusions. I've also realized that in deciding whether or not to have a child, we could very well choose to remain childless. And if that's the decision we make, it'll be all right. Going through this process with the woman I love has confirmed my earlier suspicions: Even with just the two of us -- we're already a family.

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