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June 20, 2005

'The Genius Factory' — by David Plotz


The subtitle of this bizarre, fascinating book is, "The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank."


I think that's a marked understatement.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

    From the book:

    You know how I always told you that you didn't have to be like your dad? I don't want you to look at your father and say, "This is what I have to look forward to." You need to know that you have better potential than your dad, because you don't have your dad's genes.

    One million American children have been born from donor sperm, and 30,000 more are arriving every year.

    There was an emotional void in [the mothers'] lives. They dreamed of finding donors and half siblings for their kids. Until I came along, they'd had nowhere to look. The bank had closed; there were no public records. Thanks to my project, I was learning the identities of donors, children and parents, information that was supposed to stay private forever. They realized before I did that I might be able to introduce people who hadn't been connected except when sperm met egg five or ten or twenty years ago.

    I became — through unique access to information, through moral obligation, and through my own curiosity — the Semen Detective.

    It didn't surprise me that Samantha was a divorcee. Almost all the parents I heard from were mothers who had divorced or were planning to divorce. This made sense: Married couples would be much less likely to share the secret that their children were the result of sperm donation, because the husband usually pretended to be biological fathers.

    None of the first three women who'd been inseminated with Nobel sperm had gotten pregnant. In fact no one inseminated with the Nobel sperm ever got pregnant. The Nobel Prize sperm bank would never produce a single Nobel baby.

    I told the Legares one of the odd things I had noticed in my reporting on the genius sperm bank: in most of the two dozen families I had dealt with, the father was notably absent from family life. I had heard from only a couple of intact families with attentive dads. "Social fathers" — the industry term for the nonbiological dads — have it tough. They are drained by having to pretend that children are theirs when they aren't; it takes a good actor and an extraordinary man to overlook the fact that his wife has picked another man to father his child. It's no wonder that the paternal bond can be hard to maintain.

    I told the Legares about a mom I knew who said the sperm bank had broken up her marriage. Her husband had felt as though he couldn't compete with the donor and had walked out.

    In every case, the kids bore a remarkable resemblance to their moms. The maternal resemblance was striking. The more I thought about it, the less surprising the maternal resemblance seemed. Most of these children had been raised only by their mothers. Their "social fathers" tended to be emotinally distant, and their biological donor fathers were out of the picture. So of course they were tied tightly to their moms. Was it any wonder their children grew up to be like them?

    Several countries, including Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand have recently ended donor anonymity and established donor registries for sperm and egg donors.

    In the Netherlands, the supply of donors has dried up since donor anonymity was abolished.

    When donor insemination (DI) kids turn eighteen, they will be allowed to check the registries and learn their biological dad's or mother's name. (The British registry starts this year [2005], which means that the first kids who can search for their donors won't come of age until 2023).

    The United States is a long way from having a national donor registry, but DI families are beginning to organize and lobby for one.

    Some children, mothers and donors are also circumventing the sperm banks' anonymity policies. The idea of using the Internet to connect sperm bank families has taken off in the past few years. Yahoo's Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) has become a central warehouse where mothers, kids and donors can advertise for one another. The registry, which is searchable by [sperm bank name], mushroomed from a few dozen entries in 2001 to more than three thousand in 2004.

    There have been more than six hundred matches on the DSR so far. Most of these involve very young half siblings who are being connected by their parents. There are very few cases of children and their donors finding each other, in part because so few donors have posted on the site.

    The question I am most often asked is: Did the Nobel sperm bank work? I don't have a direct answer. Of the 215 children of the Nobel sperm bank, I know of 30, aged six to twenty–two. Still, let me try to sum the children up.

    A few of them have brilliant minds. A few others have wonderful physical talents. Of the rest, most are very good if not great students. Almost all are in excellent health, but one boy in the group is autistic and one girl suffers from a debilitating muscle disease. In short, they are certainly above average as a group, but the range is very wide.

    The question of what the sperm bank gave its children is unanswerable.

    The more time I spent around DI parents and kids, the more I got the sense of how deep and how widespread the yearning of people was... both for the truth and for family.


Want more?

OK, then: yesterday's Washington Post magazine (below)


cover story by Michael Leahy is about a single mother in Massachusetts who took her two young children to the West Coast to meet "Daddy," their sperm donor.

Here's a link to the article.

And while we're at it, here's a link to the Yahoo Donor Sibling Registry.

Still haven't had enough?

OK, then: here's a link to the website for the "The Genius Factory" and its author, David Plotz.

You know, the more I work with you the more you remind me of Eve Babitz, a legendary figure of the Los Angeles 60s and 70s; she once said, "I'm easy to please — but hard to satisfy."

Only a decade or so after I originally read it did I learn that C.S. Lewis is the original source of the quotation.

June 20, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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After reading your post regarding The Genius Factory I have to admit I will definitely be reading it. Both of my kids, conceived via DI, came from the Fairfax Cryobank and were from a donor marketed as from their exceptional pool (I forgot their exact term) where we had to pay a premium for the donor's sperm. Thanks, DI_Dad

Posted by: DI_Dad | Sep 7, 2005 12:38:11 PM

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