How did we become so blasé about sperm donation?

    20 April 2016

    It’s a tricky thing asking for your money back when you’ve bought a baby. But some couples have tried to do just that after purchasing ‘bad’ sperm from a company in America.

    Twenty-six families had, in their quest for a child, turned to Xytex Cryo International. Counsellors there offered them an anonymous donor, describing him as ‘one of the best’. He spoke five languages, had an IQ score of 160 and dazzling blue eyes. His sperm produced 36 babies.

    Unbeknown to the women whose children he fathered, he was also a liar. This was eventually exposed when the families were given his name by mistake, then had a look online and discovered the truth: that he was a college drop-out with a criminal record. He also had schizophrenia, a condition with a strong genetic component.

    Understandably, the couples who bought his sperm are angry. Some are attempting to sue Xytex for its misleading description of the donor. It’s easy to empathise with their worries, as their children’s lives have now become a test of nature versus nurture. Many of them fear that their offspring could follow their father’s footsteps.

    My sympathy is a little limited, though. I have long been alarmed by how people launch into sperm and egg donation without thinking too much about the genetics. Speaking about the Xytex sperm donor, one customer said: ‘Our hearts just sank… I thought I was being more responsible than picking up a hitchhiker from the side of the road.’

    But a hitchhiker seems the perfect analogy for any egg or sperm donor, no matter how ‘clean’ their history is. They are a mystery; someone you take on in spite of extremely limited information. As if on a shopping trip, couples and singletons now decide their child’s paternity or maternity by throwing ingredients into a basket. They cast their eye over a simple biography drawn up by a clinic, picking out qualities such as an aptitude for maths or a passion for music. ‘That’s a lovely combination,’ they think.

    It’s depressingly simplistic — because how people turn out is a DNA lottery. As any psychologist will tell you, personality is based on complex interactions between the environment and genetics. Sometimes the environment facilitates the expression of personality, and other times it suppresses it. For instance, if you are born with a natural propensity to be neurotic, living in an environment full of danger can promote this trait. On the other hand, calmer surroundings can suppress neuroticism. The point is that you cannot simply predict how a baby is going to turn out based on a shopping list. Humans are a lot more complicated than that.

    Couples who regret that they have the wrong ingredients in their shopping bag do not recognise that going on a shopping trip in the first place was a bit of a gamble. There was never going to be the ‘right’ baby — because we are all mysterious, evolving products. Even if someone chooses a sperm donor who had no mental health issues or criminal history, there are no certainties over how children will turn out.

    The case of the Xytex clinic does not only highlight the failing of the sperm bank, but how much human life has been oversimplified. We now treat it as a simple product to buy — you can even order it online. We think that, like kidneys and livers, eggs and sperm can be planted into a new home, forging a new identity. But these commodities are different. Clinics may weed out the bad eggs, but they will never eliminate the lottery of human life. To take on any anonymous donor is to take on an uncertain future.