When sperm donors screen recipients
In the traditional model, the sperm bank screens the donor. They ask about his educational background and family health, assess his appearance, and, these days, maybe sample his genes. They do this on behalf of their paying customers, the intended parents.
With the rise of independent sperm donation, however — facilitated through the likes of Facebook and Craigslist — the tables may be turning. In these exchanges, the donors often screen the recipients. And one of the things they are interested in knowing about is a recipient's financial stability.
For one thing, it's practical. In most jurisdictions, indie donors are not as well protected against child support claims as are men who work through sperm banks. Donors don't want to be on the hook if recipients end up broke. Everyone seems to mention the case of the Kansas man, whose state came after him for child support after he donated to a couple who broke up, fell on hard times and applied for social assistance.
But donors also speak of personal responsibility. In the indie trade, there is no go-between to separate the giver from the getter. Instead, it's up to the men themselves to decide. And a fair number of them seem to take that fairly seriously.
Below, I focus on a conversation I had specifically about this issue with a Canadian donor who goes by the name Michael Lee. But concern about a recipient's financial situation, especially when the person is single, has come up over and over in conversations I've had with sperm donors.
5 minute read
Michael Lee, a Canadian indie sperm donor, guards his true identity closely. He does not use his real name. He does not share details about his personal life. He does not provide photos. He does not connect his social media to his real identity.
Despite that, when he is seriously considering donating sperm to a recipient, he insists on a video call. "I just want to get a sense of who they are as a person," he told me. He wants to see not only the recipient's facial expressions but also their body language. "There's a reason why people meet face-to-face."
I confessed that I wouldn't trust myself to see through a good act.
He felt more confident in that regard, he said, because he'd been in various careers that had helped him develop the skills. He'd worked in store security, for instance, where he was taught to recognize the body language of people who intend to steal. He's also interested in the topic more generally, and has read books like What Every Body Is Saying, by former FBI agent Joe Navarro. He knows he's not a trained expert. But he's had enough experience, he said, that he's pretty quick to catch on if recipients are not being straight with him.
He also watches for tells. Not being able to schedule a meet, for instance. "You can't even agree to something as simple as a video chat time, or your schedules don't match... What are you going to do when you have a baby?"
He wants to know what kind of job they have. He wants to know what kind of family support.
He also asks about critical illness insurance and disability insurance. Some people have never heard of it, he said. "The way I look at it, if you're not willing to shell out $100 a month to cover yourself for something so basic as that, but you're willing to spend $80 on your cell phone plan, your priorities aren't straight." He knows people who have been financially ruined by unexpected illness.
"I don't think you have to be wealthy, but you can't be living paycheque to paycheque either," he said. "It's no different than any adoption agency. They don't need someone to be ultra rich. But they just want someone who's working, somebody who has consistent income, somebody who has a car that's not falling apart."
It was around this point in our conversation that it dawned on me: if I'd been a potential recipient, he likely would have rejected me. My husband and I were both freelancers when we started our family, and our income was variable. We decided against critical illness insurance and disability insurance. We have only ever owned truly shitty cars.
I pointed this out to him. He agreed: we would probably not have been up to standard.
In our defence, we've successfully raised two children to adulthood.
The reality is that if you are a heterosexual couple, and you're not well off, and you don't have a good car, and you don't have a good job, and you don't have any financial security or any critical illness insurance — but you don't have fertility issues either — you can just go ahead and have a kid. But if you're a lesbian couple in exactly the same circumstance, or a couple with infertility, you can't.
He said he gets it: no one made him qualify to have his own kids. But everything is different, he said, if you're involving a third party.
I wondered out loud about overreach.
He said people should put themselves into the child's shoes. "How would you feel as a donor child, if the person who donated basically just didn't care?"
Serious people will invest time in talking with him, he said: "I won't donate after just talking to someone once." Typically, he and the recipient have about six chats. "I don't want a child to suffer because I didn't take the time."
Fewer than ten people, he said, have made the cut. He seldom has to give people bad news, though — ineligible people usually just drop out and move on. But he's okay with that. "If you're making an 18-year commitment, and you can't chat with someone for, what, three hours total, then how serious are you?"
He talks with people about all the what-if scenarios. Including this one: if both parents die, who will take care of the child?
"I mentally prepare myself for the potential, the possibility — not the probability, but the possibility — that everyone dies. And I do not want the kid to end up in foster care. I would step in and take the kid then at that point."
Lee said he grew up in poverty, so he knows what it's like. "I remember not eating," he told me. "For a day. Sometimes two." If he did eat, he said, it wasn't much — a potato, some rice, some mouldy bread.
"I never want to see any child suffer," he says. "And then on top of that, if it's my child, then I'd feel like, 'Oh, my God, I put this child in jeopardy, and I have no legal right to do anything about it.' "