Of Fathers and Sperm Donors

I don’t know who my father was — and maybe that’s why I got so riled up about a recent news story about “fertility doctors” scamming their patients who were trying to get pregnant by substituting their own sperm for donor sperm.

Image description: Man and woman holding an empty diaper between them. Photo by Mon Petit Chou Photography on Unsplash

Try this timed writing exercise: First, make a list of the insults used only against women. Then, make a list of the insults used only against men. Compare your lists.

You’ll see that most derogatory terms for women have to do with promiscuity and most derogatory terms for men have to do with homosexuality.

I used this excercise back in the twentieth century when teaching college writing to women in a re-entry program. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how language both creates and reflects cultural values. It’s very easy [surprise!] to come up with a long list of insults that get slung against women, but not so easy to write a list of insults slung only against men, especially if you don’t use slurs against specifically gay men.

My students were hard pressed to come up with a men-only insult that wasn’t related to homosexuality. Then, one day, a student said, “sperm donor.” In her community, it meant a man who did nothing for his child(ren). He wasn’t a father, just a sperm donor. It was an insult and a metaphor.

It might not be an insult anymore.

NYT headline for https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/health/sperm-donors-fraud-doctors.html

The New York Times recently reported on a series of discoveries that medical doctors in various locations across the globe substituted their own sperm for that of literal, contracted sperm donors. This wasn’t shocking to me, or to the article’s 700+ commenters

The fertility industry, of course, employs literal sperm donors: men who masturbate and donate their sperm so women can have babies. Most of these men do it for the money. But the doctors who are outed in this article (and others before them) must have had other reasons, reasons I find difficult to imagine.

Did they want to pass on their genes without ever seeing their children, let alone caring for them? That seems, in current psychological terms, narcissistic, and certainly the opposite of good parenting.

One of these doctors, who practiced in Indiana, was prosecuted for obstruction of justice and received a suspended sentence. He is the father of (thank you, DNA testing) at least 61 people:

Prosecutors said they were not able to press for a tougher sentence for a simple reason: In Indiana, as in most states, there were no laws prohibiting this conduct.

That brings me back to how words both create and reflect culture: if we don’t have words for something, it doesn’t exist. In some situations, then, reprehensible male behavior doesn’t just go unpunished: it doesn’t even exist.

Still shot of June on a GYN exam table with doctor looking at her. From TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

That’s one way the patriarchy gets its power in both the novel and the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale. The series, in that freaky way of sci-fi predicting real life, even has a scene of a medical doctor offering June his sperm, which he believes is more potent than the sperm of June’s “commander.” He makes it clear there’d be no relationship between them, and any resulting child would be a no obligation/no return situation.

Is that becoming the defining characteristic of fatherhood today? No obligation. No return. One might think so after reading the NYT article, or the countless news stories about fathers who evade responsibility.

Did these doctors believe that fatherhood ends with conception? Or is it a biological truth that men do not feel a sense of connection to their offspring, and are, in fact, superfluous when it comes to child-rearing?

I think so.

I know, I know. #NotAllMen.

But so many doctors. There must be some larger force at work here. Or, as bioethicist Dov Fox said in the NYT article, “ The number of doctors sounds less like a few bad apples and more like a generalized practice of deception, largely hidden until recently by a mix of low-tech and high stigma.”

I have nothing against fathers, but let me admit that I come from three generations of fatherless women. I don’t know who my own father was. My mother’s father was not a part of her life. My maternal grandmother’s father died when she was seven years old.

Let me also admit that I have no children. And yet, I think every reasonable person can agree that a father’s physical experience of impregnating a woman is trivial compared to a woman’s physical experience of carrying a child in her body for months before it bursts forth, covered in her own blood, and the cord connecting the two of them is cut.

The fertility industry recruits surrogate mothers as well as sperm donors, of course, and this has raised ethical concerns about the exploitation of women. Some countries have gone so far as to ban surrogacy entirely. As far as I can tell, no one seems concerned that men are being exploited for their sperm. Why is that?

Good and bad mothers exist, of course, as well as good and bad fathers, and everything in between. I’m petty enough to have felt jealous of my husband’s two kids when I first saw how he listened to them, encouraged them, advised them, and generally cared for them. One of my brothers was a single father of three girls. But are fathers really necessary, beyond conception? If they don’t care where their sperm ends up, what does that mean?

This enquiring mind wants to know.

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store