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The Sperm Barrier

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The Sperm Barrier
By Barb Sumner Burstyn

So finally the sperm barrier has been breached with the opening last week of a British based service providing fresh sperm to anyone, but specifically lesbian couples, seeking a child. (NZ Herald 26.06.2002) Using the services website, couples will be able to order sperm online, stipulating the physical characteristics of the child they wish to conceive. The site, which received 8,000 registrations (3000 lesbian couples and 5000 donor men) in it’s first 48 hours of operation, asks its clients to imagine a world where no one has to ask a friend for a sperm sample, a place where discretion is paramount. It declares you can now choose your child from the comfort of your own home (as if baby picking were as easy as eBay) and the company promises a world where the creation of a child can be completed in absolute anonymity. With no chance of the sperm being tagged to a real live man.

Site owner John Gonzales said he expects some criticism from people who do not approve of the idea of helping lesbians become parents. "If a child is going to be loved and cared for, to me it doesn't matter if it is two women or a man and a woman bringing it up,” said Mr Gonzales. And he’s right. A mother’s sexual orientation is irrelevant. But Mr Gonzales is missing the point. By focusing the argument in this direction he’s simply generating great PR by inducing moral outrage, while ignoring the real issues raised by his secret sperm service. Anonymous children.

In many ways this latest attraction on the reproductive roadmap echoes the closed adoptions of the 50’s and 60’s when the ideology of environmental supremacy (environment always overcomes heredity) reigned supreme. Back then they believed that only a complete break with the past would enable adoptive parents to fully shape an adoptee's life. But instead these beliefs were found to be deeply flawed. Adoptee’s who wanted to know their origins were characterized as pathologically dysfunctional misfits. Now days we understand the power of genetic inheritance, with the right to know ones origins considered a fundamental building block of human development.

But the anonymous sperm donor is even more dangerous to the future emotional health of children than any closed adoption. The basis of adoption closed or otherwise was to benefit children deprived of their natural parents. The secrecy was designed to protect the child from the slur of illegitimacy that existed in society at the time and adopting parents understood they were essentially receiving a surprise package. But this latest reproductive development is anything but altruistic. It has a far more insidious motivation.

Mr Gonzales says that knowing half your child's genetic heritage could lead to complications for both sides in the future. So the secrecy is not to protect the child but to relieve the parent of the inconvenience of another adult.

Particularly a man. And the opportunity to choose the physical characteristics of your future child? Peel back the thin disguise of compatibility, of mothers seeking to match their child only to themselves, and you find it’s just another exercise in maternal narcissism. Secrecy in any assisted reproductive technique – be it top of the line technology or turkey baster home kits is a smoke screen for selfishness. An opportunity for a parent to create a child in their own image. A certified blank slate. A creature unencumbered by heritage or past life baggage. A child without even a pesky mythical father to imagine.

It’s an unparallel form of egoism, one that sees a child as a possession and parenting as a right.

Many countries, including New Zealand have legislation pending to make registration of sperm donors mandatory. This will mean no guarantee of secrecy for sperm donors or room for a mother to imagine the product of her conception is immaculate. But that’s within the established fertility community. With the permeable borders of the World Wide Web, the relative ease of servicing both supply and demand of sperm and the increasing commodification of everything, including our children, there’s no way to legislate what people do with a turkey baster in the privacy of their own homes.

So perhaps for once in history it’s up to men to exert some control over reproduction. To limit the supply of that essential raw ingredient, to value their sperm as sacred and not to sell it into secrecy, condemning their anonymous offspring to grow up with the indelible knowledge that half a genetic heritage does not a whole person make?

© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, June 2002
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