Sperm Donors on the Large and Small Screen

Posted in: Family Law

It has been quite a week for anonymous sperm donors—and their offspring.  Vince Vaughn’s new movie, Deliveryman, in which he plays a man whose sperm donations were “accidentally” used to conceive 533 children, opened in theaters nationwide.  And a new show, Generation Cryo, depicting the quest of a teenage girl to meet the fifteen half-siblings and the anonymous sperm donor responsible for all of their conceptions, debuted on MTV.

It is not a coincidence that two such mainstream sources—Hollywood and MTV—converged on this issue.  Sperm donation, once heavily cloaked in secrecy, is coming out of the closet, much as adoption did twenty years ago.  And what Deliveryman and Generation Cryo both depict are the yearnings of a generation of donor-conceived offspring to find their roots—against the backdrop of a system that was designed around the principle that donors should remain anonymous.

These media depictions of sperm donors and their offspring—one fictional, one not—raise at least three important questions.  First, how courts or legislatures should balance the rights of donor-conceived offspring, many of whom express an interest in learning the identity of their donors, against the rights of the donor, the biological mother, and perhaps the mother’s partner or spouse, most of whom entered into the arrangement with the belief that the anonymity would be permanent.  Second, can or should the system of anonymous sperm donation survive in an age when technology has made it increasingly hard to keep secrets and the tolerance for alternatively formed families is greater than ever? Third, does the possibility of dozens or even hundreds of offspring from the same donor raise policy questions that ought to result in greater regulation of gamete donation in the United States?

The Emergence of Sperm Donation as a Method of Conception

Although the first recorded sperm donation dates to the late Nineteenth Century, its routine use as a response to male infertility dates only to the 1950s.  Once used almost exclusively by married women whose husbands could not produce sperm, sperm donation in later decades became the most common method of conception for single women and for lesbian couples.  Because there is no formal data collection on sperm donations or sperm-donor conceptions, it is hard to put an exact number on the practice.  But estimates hover around 60,000 donor-conceived births per year.

The lack of official data is a byproduct of a largely unregulated industry.  Cryobanks are subject to certain guidelines governing the donation of human cells and tissue, including rules designed to ensure the adequate screening of donors and appropriate cryopreservation techniques.  And the FDA theoretically, though not effectively, bans in-person donations of sperm (other than through sex) on the grounds that those health and safety regulations are not being honored.  But there is no law regulating whether donations are anonymous or non-anonymous, nor one limiting the number of times the same donor’s sperm may be used to inseminate women.  Neither is there much if any law about the enforceability of contracts and consent forms that routinely form the basis of sperm donations and sperm purchases at cryobanks.

Fictional Sperm Donors: Vince Vaughn as Starbuck

The lack of regulation gives rise to real and fantastical possibilities of sperm donation gone wild—and an array of issues that inevitably result.

In Deliveryman (info and trailers here), Vince Vaughn portrays a hapless man who is, indeed, a (very bad) delivery man, for his family’s meat business.  He performs poorly at work, has made a series of bad decisions that have left him with $100,000 in loan shark debt and a home-based pot growery designed to earn money to pay it back, and has a police-officer girlfriend who is pregnant and seriously thinking about cutting him out of the baby’s life because he’s never managed to be a success at anything.  But she’s selling him short.  Unbeknownst to her, he spent a good deal of time over a three-year period in his early 20s selling sperm to the local cryobank—693 donations, which later earned him the nickname “El Masturbator.” And not only did he earn enough money to take his parents and siblings on an extended trip to Venice—a lifetime dream for his parents, who couldn’t afford to take a honeymoon when they married—but his sperm was powerful stuff.  For a time, we learn, the cryobank used his sperm for every single client who darkened their doorstep.  Thus, the 533 children carrying his genetic material.

Thanks to a donor sibling website, over one hundred of these children have found each other and banded together on various social media platforms under the appellation “Starbuck Kids,” in honor of Vaughn’s donor name.  (Vaughn’s character has nothing on the real “Starbuck,” a Canadian bull whose semen was so desirable it generated $25 million over his lifetime and produced hundreds of thousands of cows.)  They have also filed a lawsuit against the cryobank demanding that Starbuck’s true identity be revealed.

Much of the movie plot turns on Vaughn’s incompetent lawyer, a friend whose license had been revoked and recently reinstated.  The lawyer keeps telling Vaughn to plead insanity, which has no relevance to the lawsuit.  The best legal advice he offers his client is to “stop masturbating at fertility clinics.”

Meanwhile, Starbuck has been given photos and profiles of the 142 children—mostly now in their early 20s—who have joined the lawsuit.  He seeks out several of them under various pretenses and tries out “parenting lite.”  He minds the store while one barista goes to an audition.  He takes an addict to the ER and, when mistaken for her father, has to grapple with whether to force her into rehab.  He beams proudly while watching one offspring who plays for the Knicks.  He has an epiphany after these interactions that while he can’t be a father to 533 children, he can be their “guardian angel.”  (A review in the San Francisco Chronicle pegged this part of the movie exactly right in describing it like “watching six seasons of ‘Highway to Heaven’ crammed into one 103-minute sitting.”)

The rest of the movie—no spoilers here—alternates between the lawsuit and montages of the half-siblings bonding over their shared quest to discover their roots.  Suffice it to say that law students would do well not to learn their law from Vince Vaughn or his on-screen lawyer.

Real Sperm Donors: Breeanna’s Quest

In the first episode of Generation Cryo (the only one to have aired so far, which can be watched here), a 17-year-old from Reno begins a series of video diaries addressed to her “donor,” whom she hopes to find.  Through the Donor Sibling Registry, she has located 15 half-siblings.  She was born to a lesbian couple, who bought sperm from the California Cryobank and had it delivered in a frozen canister to their doorstep.  Although the couple broke up when Bree was young, and one of the woman began dating men, they continued to co-parent Bree.

Through the episode, cameras follow Bree to Atlanta as she meets the first two—a set of twins born to a married, heterosexual couple in which the husband was sterile.  Their first visit is heartwarming, but also tense, as Bree asks the male twin, Jonah, to provide a DNA sample that she believes will help her locate the donor.  Jonah’s dad is forced to confront his long-repressed angst over not being able to produce biological children and his fears about the disruption to his family if the donor’s identity is revealed.  In an emotional blow to her husband, the wife admits that she is curious and would like to meet the man who helped them become parents.

Teasers for future episodes show Bree video-chatting with, and then visiting, additional half-siblings, including a set of female twins born to a single mother in Massachusetts.  But these sibling meet-ups are clearly just a step on a bigger journey for Bree.  Her goal is to find her sperm donor using a combination of DNA test results, DNA registries, genealogy websites and whatever else might help her locate him.  It is clear even from the first episode that not all the half siblings, nor all their parents, have the same level of interest in or comfort with the possibility that donor #1096 might walk into their lives.

Whether Reality or Fiction, Anonymous Sperm Donation Raises Real Issues

The underlying premise of both Deliveryman and Generation Cryo is that donor-conceived offspring may not accept or value anonymity the way the adults who participated in the conception did (or still do).  This conflict is sensitively portrayed in Generation Cryo, which focuses not only on the children’s interests, but also on the interests and reaction of the adults who raised these children—the biological mother and the spouse or partner without a biological tie to the child whose position might feel most threatened by revelation of the donor’s identity.  And although the donor may never be found (I think he will), his interests are voiced by one of Bree’s mothers who asks what it might be like for him after all these years to discover he has at least 16 “children.”

Deliveryman, in contrast, never mentions a single adult involved in producing or raising these 533 children, other than Starbuck.  This is surprising given that the plot of the movie is about the children’s dissatisfaction with the anonymity on which their parents and the donor relied.  But only Vaughn’s interests are voiced.  What would his offspring expect from him if they learn his identity? How would his girlfriend, and the mother of his just-born 534th child, handle the news? Would revelation of his frequent donations raise or lower his standing in his family and in the community?  Yet, the interests of the children’s mothers, and maybe their mothers’ partners, are clearly relevant to any balancing of rights.

Current law has answers to only some of the questions raised by anonymous sperm donation.  In most states, anonymous sperm donors, who donate through a cryobank or a physician, rather than in person, are protected by non-paternity laws.  Thus, even if the donor’s identity is revealed, he would not be considered a legal parent and would have no obligations or rights as a parent.

But whether a court would force a cryobank to reveal the identity of an anonymous donor based on the rights of the offspring is anyone’s guess.  There were lawsuits of this sort challenging adoption secrecy laws and practices in the 1970s.  Secrecy in that context was facilitated, if not mandated, by state law.  Adoptions were brokered by intermediaries so that neither the adoptive parents nor the birth parents would know each other’s identity.  The fact of the adoption was kept secret from the outside world, through sealed court records and the issuance of a new (fake) birth certificate making no mention of the adoption.  In several states, adult adoptees sued, claiming that they had a right to know the identity of their birth parents.  But courts were reluctant to override the wishes of the adults involved in the adoption, who had relied on the secrecy.  The courts were less sympathetic to the harm of not knowing one’s roots then to the fear by the adoptive parents that they would be displaced or the damage to the birth mother by having a stigmatizing out-of-wedlock birth from her past revealed.

Decades later, Oregon passed a law granting adult adoptees the right to obtain their original birth certificates.  A few other states passed laws to make it easier for adult adoptees to find their birth parents.  But in most states children adopted from the 1950s to the 1990s had to rely on voluntary registries to find their birth parents. The real change in adoption did not come through law.  As unwed pregnancy became commonplace and infertility became less shameful, the urge to cloak adoptions in secrecy became less powerful.  Moreover, in an age in which demand greatly outstrips supply of adoptable babies, birth mothers call the shots and they, in large numbers, have begun to insist on open adoptions.  They pick the adoptive parents personally and may even contract for post-adoption contact or visitation.  The vast majority of domestic adoptions in the U.S. now fit this mold.

Should we expect the same change for sperm donation? Will the experiences of this generation dictate greater openness for the next?  In some countries, anonymous gamete donation is illegal at least in part because it is believed that children have a right to know their origins.  Sperm donation in these regimes has continued despite predictions that the market would dry up completely.

In the United States, sperm donation presents perhaps a stronger case for openness than adoption did.  Part of the fiction of adoption in the twentieth century was that adoptive parents could pretend the child they raised was their biological child.  Agencies were careful to place children with parents who were appropriate in age and with consistent physical features to make this possible.  And the birth mother was presumed to value secrecy, since non-marital sex and pregnancy were both taboo.  But with sperm donation, this passing off is often not possible.  As Breeanna explains in the opening narrative of her show, her two mothers wanted to have a child but couldn’t because “neither of them has a penis.”  There is no question when a lesbian woman gives birth to a child that a man was involved in some way in the conception—so the fact of sperm donation is already in the open.  The real threat with non-anonymous sperm donors is the threat to exclusive parenthood.  Will the sperm donor disrupt the functional family unit or try to assume a parental role?  The law can fix this problem with strong rules of non-paternity, and greater enforcement of the agreements that typically accompany sperm donations.  (Vince Vaughn’s character mentions that he signed an anonymity agreement with each and every one of his nearly 700 donations.)

Even if the adults involved in donor conceptions continue to prefer anonymous donations, technology may simply make permanent secrecy impossible.  Breeanna is hopeful she will find her sperm donor, and she may well succeed.  Others have.  Almost ten years ago, a teenage boy identified his own sperm donor beginning with nothing more than a swab of his own cheek.  His detective work was impressive, and led him to the right man.  (A recent book, Finding Our Families, by Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, and Naomi Cahn, a leading academic expert in these issues, provides a guide for donor-conceived children seeking to find their donors.)  Technology is only moving in one direction.  And the greater the acceptance of alternatively formed families, the less sympathy there is likely to be for the adults who insist on secrecy.

As to the question whether there should be limits on the number of children conceived with one donor’s sperm? The answer can only be yes.  Concerns about accidental incest—imagine the possibilities with 533 good-looking twenty-somethings all living in the same metropolitan area—are real.  Experts recommend various limits, but all agree there should be a limit.  But the law would have to undertake regulation of an area it has previously left alone.


The coincidence of sperm donation hitting the big and small screen the same week tells us something about its cultural pervasiveness.  A new era of openness about reproductive technology—its promise and its complications—is upon us.  Although very different, these two portrayals raise important questions and offer a reminder that the law has yet to take responsibility for regulating this important social and medical practice.

8 responses to “Sperm Donors on the Large and Small Screen”

  1. marilynn says:

    “As to the question whether there should be limits on the number of children conceived with one donor’s sperm? The answer can only be yes.” It’s hard to believe that a professor of family law would suggest that there should be limits to the number of offspring a person can have. A gamete donor is just a man or a woman; they are not some third classification of sub-human. They have the same bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom of choice the rest of the population has, because they are part of the rest of the population. Being a gamete donor does not diminish their reproductive freedom. Look how well government mandated child limits is working out for China.

    I wrote an article about the real maximum number of children per donor in the ASRM ethics guidelines for physicians – its over 200,000 children per gamete donor and they represent that number as a formula instead of as a number to be deliberately deceptive to their consumer base. The article is maintained on the Donor Sibling Registry library of relevant medical information.

    Its remarkable that there are so many articles on what to do about keeping the numbers down and how to keep track of how many kids donors are having. There is a model that works for the rest of the population just fine, why don’t we simply apply the same rules to gamete donors as we would any other bio parent? All other bio parents have to be accountable as parents on their children’s birth certificates, why not them? That’s how we keep track of how many kids people have and its how we keep accurate track of the population’s fertility rates. What? Donors aren’t human? Everyone else with offspring has to write their name down in association with their offspring and that becomes a vital statistic a vital record of their health and the health of their kids. Their relatives can access their vital records and the records of their children and their children can have access to all their relatives vital records. It’s a system that works very well so long as people don’t lie and so long as we hold people accountable on paper for the lives they create.

    Why are we as a society exempting some bio parents from having to play by the same rules as other bio parents? The bio parents who are having the most kids, the most prolific reproducers in this country appear to have no children at all or only the handful that they happen to have chosen to raise. Worse yet people who are either too old or too sick to reproduce are actually being recorded as having done so. To look at the CDC’s fertility rates you’d think that fertility just does not decline as women age anymore and it looks like there is a real drop in the fertility rates of young women. But its still only the young healthy people reproducing! We are just writing it down wrong. Why? So that people who can’t have kids can obtain someone else’s to raise? There is an operational model for that as well, its called adoption or guardian ship and you do it in court after a background check and home study and they check out the bio parent’s reasoning for relinquishing to make sure they are not profiting from giving up their parental authority.

    Donor offspring are being denied the government’s due process protection against trafficking and human trade; their black market adoptions are being sold to the public as a miracle conception technique for the infertile and people who have no reproductive partners. People are not having kids with their infertile or same sex partners and they are not having them alone either – they are having their kids with members of the opposite sex who signed an unenforceable contract promising to give up their kids if and when any were born with their donated gametes.

    People should have the right to donate their gametes and the right to reproduce freely but they should not have some special right not to be held accountable for their children at birth. Donors need to join the rest of the population who has to take into consideration that they’ll be accountable for their children and then you’d see the number of offspring per gamete donor drop drastically. The number of offspring per donor might drop down to just the offspring they were willing to raise or relinquish in court approved adoptions. Why are parental rights part of their gamete donation agreements if all they are giving up is gametes? They are not selling or giving away their gametes for real they can withdraw consent at anytime right up until they are in someone else’s body. They can withdraw consent to give up parental rights to their offspring as well simply say they had a change of heart nobody can force them to keep producing kids for other people to raise.

    Donors did not really sell off or disburse their reproductive rights and responsibilities to corporations and private parties holding their gametes. The best way to limit the number of kids people have is to make them personally accountable for them. It won’t cost tax payers a dime to have donors behave the way other bio parents have to – no registries, no special tracking systems, no artificial limits on the number of children they’re allowed to have. Donate gametes freely but do what other bio parents have to do when their kids are born.

    • Greg says:

      “There is an operational model for that as well, its called adoption or guardian ship”

      Guardianship is not a way for a person who wants to become a parent to become one. In those situations the adult is just a provider for that child. They aren’t a parent and not obligated to develop any type of emotional relationship with the kid.

      “The best way to limit the number of kids people have is to make them personally accountable for them.”

      You are correct that by banning donor conception does limit the number of kids they would conceive. They would only conceive the kids they patented. It would decrease the overall population and increase the number of childless couples/people. Because those childless couples/people are not going to adopt or legally babysit kids instead. If they had an interest in adopting or legally babysitting they would have done that to begin with.

  2. marilynn says:

    “In some countries, anonymous gamete donation is illegal at least in part because it is believed that children have a right to know their origins. Sperm donation in these regimes has continued despite predictions that the market would dry up completely.” – See more at: http://verdict.justia.com/2013/11/27/sperm-donors-large-small-screen#sthash.OwLeKWSe.dpuf

    How does banning gamete donation or even banning anonymous gamete donation solve the supposed problem of ‘children’ having a ‘right to know their origins’. If society is concerned about the rights of a donor’s offspring being violated by the process, let’s look at what donors are doing after their kids are born that might be violating their rights as dependent minors in the general population. Don’t look to what their bio parents were doing prior to their birth in order to solve a problem that only occurs after they are born. That is such an illogical approach to fixing what’s wrong in their lives.

    Why don’t they know their ‘origins’? Because their bio parents are not following the same rules as other bio parents. Why? Why are they exempted from the rules that apply to other bio parents when that exemption clearly disadvantages their offspring. So what if other people want to ‘be their parents’? A donor’s offspring does not exist to solve that problem for those people and it’s quite unfair of society to say those people are their parents just because they paid a fee to write their name on the birth certificate to conceal the adoptive nature of their relationship to someone else’s kid.

    Donor offspring are treated in law as half human half donor with rights only to the human parent who decides to raise them. Its a socially constructed disability that can easily be corrected by removing a gamete donor’s exemption from parental responsibility. Be a gamete donor sure, but let it have no bearing on personal responsibility for ALL their offspring. Stop pretending that their gametes can actually become someone else’s – not by gift, trade or purchase will they ever be anyone else’s, neither will the kids created from them.

    • Greg says:

      If anonymous donation is banned it means that the donor is known or can be known. Thus a child is able to know their origins. So it does solve that issue. I’m not sure why you are implying that it wouldn’t.

  3. marilynn says:

    “Will the sperm donor disrupt the functional family unit or try to assume a parental role? The law can fix this problem with strong rules of non-paternity, and greater enforcement of the agreements that typically accompany sperm donations.” – See more at: http://verdict.justia.com/2013/11/27/sperm-donors-large-small-screen#sthash.OwLeKWSe.dpuf

    Please explain what is wrong with biological parents being not only interested in their children but actually raising them. What problem does the law need to fix with regard to bio parents wanting to be the parents of their own children? Why on earth would we want to enforce the terms of a private agreement that resulted in a person not being raised by a bio parent who wanted to raise them? What possible good does that do the child or the world when we would enforce private contract terms for parental rights and obligations? What’s this self terminating of parental rights and obligations? Go to court and have the reason vetted out make sure they are not compensated for relinquishing, background check and home study the individuals who want parental authority. For pete sake give the kid his due process its the least society can do when they have the misfortune of having an uncaring and unsympathetic bio parent who can’t be bothered to take care of them. Do these kids just not deserve that level of protection? Are they sub human people can just buy parental title and rights to them on the open market so long as the contract is signed before they’re born? That’s what use to be called black market adoption and now that big industry found a way to make a buck at it – suddenly there is a miracle way for two women to conceive a kid together. Oh the magic of technology a woman can have a baby with her infertile husband and a man can have a baby with his 53 year old wife. Oh the miracles of technology continue to astound us. So for the law to keep up with the technological advances in treating infertility we have to enforce black market adoption contracts? If infertility was actually being treated there would not need to be any contracts where donors relinquish parental rights, they’rd be no donors if anyone’s fertility had actually been fixed.

    • Greg says:

      Why does this always have to turn into attacks on infertile people when same sex couples and single parents choose these ways to become parents?

      And what is so bad about someone having one parent who isn’t biologically related to them?

  4. marilynn says:

    I made so many comments because I help donor offspring identify and contact their estranged bio parents and other relatives for free. I know a whole lot of donor offspring and adopted people and the law treats them as subclass with fewer rights in order to serve childless adults who are willing to pay high prices for smart good looking children with no bio family looming in the background. It’s a massive violation of human rights.