Wanted: A Few Good Sperm
Wanted: A Few Good Sperm
By: Jennifer Egan
Date: March 19, 2006
Source: Egan, Jennifer. "Wanted: A Few Good Sperm." The New York Times. (19 March 2006)
About the Author: Jennifer Egan has published three books and writes for such publications as the New York Times Magazine, Zoetrope, The New Yorker, and Harper's. Her book Look at Me was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Single motherhood by choice, rather than circumstance, emerged as a trend in the United States in the early 1980s. In 1981, Jane Mattes founded the organization Single Mothers By Choice, in response to a lack of support for mothers like her, who had chosen single motherhood, rather than fallen into it by circumstance. As career choices opened up for women in the 1970s and 1980s, greater numbers of women found themselves in their late thirties and early forties unmarried, yet wanting to have biological or adopted children, but outside of marriage. Mattes' organization focuses on support; part of its philosophy includes "support and information to single mothers by choice and to single women considering motherhood, to provide a peer group for our children, and to clarify the public's understanding of single mothers by choice." Though no statistics are kept to determine how many women in the United States are single mothers by choice, the number of women seeking membership in organizations such as Single Mothers By Choice and the National Organization of Single Mothers is on the rise.
In 1981, there were 19.1 births per one thousand women to single mothers; in 2001 that figure had increased to 35.5. Births to women over the age of thirty-five have nearly doubled in the past two decades. Many professional women devote their twenties to their graduate degrees and first jobs, their thirties to professional advancement, and find themselves at the end of their thirties ready for a child—but without a suitable partner. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes in her controversial 2002 book Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career, reproductive technologies can help women to become pregnant without male partners, but they cannot stop the advance of natural fertility reduction. When only ten percent of women over the age of forty-two are able to conceive naturally, but the majority of women in polls do not know that fertility begins to decline at age twenty-seven, Hewlett's book connected the "man shortage" for professional women touted by the media for years with the expectation that babies could wait until after a career was established.
Sperm and egg banks have experienced dramatic rises in business over the past twenty years, selling sperm and more recently, eggs, to married heterosexual couples, single heterosexual women, lesbian couples, couples hiring surrogates, and a wide range of other couples making choices using these banks. More than one hundred sperm banks operate in the United States, and women can select characteristics ranging from hair color to shoe size to IQ from donors.
Meanwhile, single, well-educated, professional women like Karyn in the article below find themselves shopping for sperm donors online as they make their decision to be a single mother by choice.
One day last October, Karyn, a thirty-nine-year-old executive, pulled her online dating profile off Jdate and Match.com, two sites she had been using, along with an endless series of leads, tips and blind dates arranged by friends and colleagues, to search for a man she wanted to marry and raise a family with. At long last, after something like one hundred dates in the past ten years and several serious relationships, she had found the man she refers to, tongue only slightly in cheek, as "the one." It all began last summer, when she broke off a relationship with a younger man who wasn't ready for children and got serious about the idea of conceiving on her own. She gathered information about fertility doctors and sperm banks. "Then a childhood friend of mine was over," she told me. "I pulled up the Web site of the only sperm bank that I know of that has adult photos. There happened to be one Jewish person. I pulled up the photo, and I looked at my friend, and I looked at his picture, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' I can't say love at first sight, because, you know. But he was the one."
Sperm donors, like online daters, answer myriad questions about heroes, hobbies and favorite things. Karyn read her donor's profile and liked what she saw. "You can tell he comes from a warm family, some very educated," she said. He had worked as a chef. He had "proven fertility," meaning that at least one woman conceived using his sperm. Like all sperm donors, he was free from any sexually transmitted diseases or testable genetic disorders. "People in New York change sex partners quicker than the crosstown bus," Karyn said. "I'd be a lot more concerned about my date next week." But she especially liked the fact that he was an identity-release donor (also called an "open donor" or a "yes donor")—a growing and extremely popular category of sperm donors who are willing to be contacted by any offspring who reach the age of eighteen.
The next morning, Karyn called the bank and spoke with a woman who worked there. "She said: 'I have to be honest. He's very popular, and I only have eight units in store right now. I'm not sure how much longer he might be in the program,' Karyn told me. "Most women in New York impulse-buy Manolo Blahniks, and I said, 'I'll take the eight units.' It was $3,100." The price included six months of storage.
That hefty purchase, and the strong sense of connection she felt to the donor, galvanized Karyn: she made an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist and gave up alcohol and caffeine. At work, she took on a position of greater responsibility and longer hours—with a higher salary—to save money. She went on a wait list to buy more of the donor's sperm when it became available. (All donor sperm must be quarantined for six months—the maximum incubation period for H.I.V.—so that the donor can be retested for the disease before it is released.) She told her parents and married sister what was going on, e-mailing the donor's picture to her father with an invitation that he meet his son-in-law. She also printed the donor's picture and kept it on the coffee table of her Manhattan studio apartment, where she sleeps in a Murphy bed. "I kind of glance at it as I pass," she said of the picture. "It's almost like when you date someone, and you keep looking at them, and you're, like, Are they cute? But every time I pass, I'm, like, Oh, he's really cute. It's a comforting feeling."
When I suggested that she must be a type who is prone to love at first sight, she just laughed. "With online dating, friends used to say: 'What about him? What about him?' I'd say: 'don't like the nose. Ah, the eyes are a little buggy. He really likes to golf, and you know I don't like golfing.' There was always something. If I said this about everyone," she concluded, "I would have married someone about seventy-five dates ago."
Karyn said she hoped to join a population of women that everyone agrees is expanding, although by how much is hard to pin down because single mothers by choice (or choice mothers), as they are sometimes called, aren't separated statistically from, say, babies born to unwed teenagers. Between 1999 and 2003 there was an almost seventeen percent jump in the number of babies born to unmarried women between ages thirty and forty-four in America, according to the National Center for Human Statistics, while the number born to unmarried women between fifteen and twenty-four actually decreased by nearly six percent. Single Mothers by Choice, a twenty-five-year-old support group, took in nearly double the number of new members in 2005 as it did ten years ago, and its roughly 4,000 current members include women in Israel, Australia and Switzerland. The California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, owed a third of its business to single women in 2005, shipping them 9,600 vials of sperm, each good for one insemination.
As recently as the early 60's, a "respectable" woman needed to be married just to have sex, not to speak of children; a child born out of wedlock was a source of deepest shame. Yet this radical social change feels strangely inevitable; nearly a third of American households are headed by women alone, many of whom not only raise their children on their own but also support them. All that remains is conception, and it is small wonder that women have begun chipping away at needing a man for that—especially after Sylvia Ann Hewlett's controversial 2002 book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," sounded alarms about declining fertility rates in women over thirty-five. The Internet is also a factor; as well as holding meetings through local chapters around the country, Single Mothers by Choice hosts eleven Listservs, each addressing a different aspect of single motherhood. Women around the world pore over these lists, exchanging tips and information, selling one another leftover vials of sperm. (Once sperm has shipped, it can't be returned to the bank.) Karyn found both her sperm bank and reproductive endocrinologist on these Listservs. Three-quarters of the members of Single Mothers by Choice choose to conceive with donor sperm, as lesbian couples have been doing for many years—adoption is costly, slow-moving and often biased against single people. Buying sperm over the Internet, on the other hand, is not much different from buying shoes.
In 2005 and 2006, Republican lawmakers in Indiana and Virginia crafted laws that would prohibit single women from using reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination, intrauterine insemination, or in vitro fertilization; though the laws were struck down in committee in both states, the message was clear. Women who choose single motherhood, outside of marriage, are viewed by religious conservatives as aberrations.
Vice President Dan Quayle, in 1992, famously pointed to fictional television character Murphy Brown as an example of highly paid professional mothers who, in his words, were "mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice'." The television character Murphy Brown was not a single mother by choice—her character had become pregnant by accident, and she chose to keep the baby—while Qualye's choice to use a fictional character to make a social point was derided by late night television comedians and policy experts alike. His message, though, was embraced by cultural conservatives such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, who stated that "virtually every poll taken during the firestorm revealed that the majority of the people agreed with Mr. Quayle." However, when Sex and the City's fictional character Miranda gave birth as a single mother just ten years later, the episode triggered barely a ripple or comment from the media or cultural critics.
More than thirty percent of all children born in the United States are born to unmarried mothers; single mothers by choice represent a small percentage of these births. Although their numbers are small, the women who join Single Mothers By Choice are organized, having created a sibling registry using donor numbers from sperm banks; single mothers who used the same donor for conception can connect with other single mothers by choice to meet and know their child's half-sibling. This non-traditional approach to building a family has become part of the milieu of choices in modern parenting, a sea change since 1978, when the world welcomed Louise Brown as the first test tube baby; in vitro fertilization now assists thousands of single mothers by choice to fulfill their family dreams.
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