The Paternity Problem

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

Susan and her partner want to have a baby. Several months ago, they chose a sperm donor from a catalogue and have been trying to get pregnant ever since. Then one day, Susan, a gynecologist, was inseminating a patient with donor sperm when she noticed the identification number was the same as the sperm she and her partner were using. The consummate professional, Susan said nothing. But the voice inside her head was screaming, "Yikes!"

Susan relates this anecdote to me in the car while we are talking about my somewhat irrational fear that every lesbian who uses artificial insemination is getting the same sperm. Her story hardly alleviates my worries. It's a good thing Susan is driving.

My fear of hundreds of related children born to lesbian couples now looms over me, just behind the biological clock, which looms even larger.

I have always wanted to have a child, and I was confident I'd be cradling an infant before I was 30. I believed 30 was the year my own childhood would end and I would become a grown-up. I barely noticed (or at least refused to acknowledge the moment) when my self-imposed deadline came and went. "I'm only 30 (31, 32, 33...)," I said to myself. "I have years left to think about this." Now I'm 35. Tick, tick, tick.

Five years ago I fell in love with a wonderful woman. P. is a perfect foil for my serious nature, with an uncanny ability to make me laugh. Her playfulness, which often borders on goofiness, and my capacity for nurturing seem like a great combination for prospective parents.

It's time to find some sperm.

But first, I need to quell my fear of getting the same sperm as hundreds of other lesbians. There must be some kind of state regulation, I decide. Searching for an answer, I call people at the State of Minnesota's general information number, the Department of Health, the Health Care Facility Licensing office, the Board of Medical Practice, and the Office of Trade and Economic Development. No one knows of any state regulation governing sperm banks, but there may be some kind of industry standards.

We decide to go directly to the sperm banks to find out what they say about their procedures. An amateur computer geek, I naturally start with a search of the World Wide Web. I discover a sperm bank in California that caters to lesbians and accepts gay men as donors. As I scroll down the page, the words "known donor" leap out at me. They want you to meet the guy? Invite him to dinner? Send Christmas cards? Wait a minute -- if we wanted to know the donor, we wouldn't be going through a sperm bank. I'm relieved, however, to note that the bank limits each donor to fathering only four children. The average at other sperm banks, the site claims, is 10. Apparently I'm not the only one who worries about having a child with 200 half-siblings.

We learn from a friend that the sperm bank she and her partner used has a formula based on the geographic location of the parents. The bank allows one baby fathered by the same donor for every 100,000 people in the area. I do the math: If you take the Twin Cities as a single geographic area, there could be as many as 22 related babies born through artificial insemination. Not terribly comforting, but at least there's a limit.

I return to the computer and find the home page of a sperm bank in Chicago with an on-line sperm catalogue. The information is pretty basic: ethnic background, blood type, build, height, weight, occupation. But neither of us pays any attention to the height and weight of our male friends. What does 5'11" and 225 pounds look like? Is it hulking? We have no clue. I link to their fee schedule, and my head begins to spin. Packing, shipping, tanks, vials, deposits -- the list goes on and on and on.

I attend a workshop for lesbians thinking about having children. P. is working, so I'm there solo. In a windowless room, about 30 women sit on folding chairs and fill out three-by-five index cards with our names, our biggest concern about parenthood, and a word describing our decision-making styles. Almost all the women are with partners, except me. Incredibly self-conscious, I attempt small talk with other women, conspicuously dropping P.'s name into the conversation.

When we share our concerns, the other women voice reasonable worries about their age, about their abilities as parents, about money and time. When my turn comes, I blurt, "I worry that hundreds of lesbians are being impregnated with sperm from the same donor!"

Suddenly, I feel like either a paranoid schizophrenic or Oliver Stone. I want to explain that I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I know if I try to explain my fear, I will sound even more loopy. Haven't these women ever heard of Cecil Jacobson, a fertility doctor in Virginia who used his own sperm to impregnate his unsuspecting patients, fathering as many as 75 children? The virile doctor was found guilty of fraud and perjury in 1992 and sentenced to five years in prison. The inevitable made-for-television movie, starring Melissa Gilbert, aired in 1994. I begin to wonder who will play me in the movie if my fears prove true. Helen Hunt would be ideal, but she's probably unavailable. More likely, the producers will cast Valerie Bertinelli with a bleach job. As the workshop ends and women get up to leave, I can't shake the image of a "very special" One Day at a Time episode. P. says she's glad she wasn't there.

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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