Watch and Comment: “Donor Unknown” on PBS

Donor Child
In case you haven’t heard about Donor Unknown, the PBS documentary that focuses on one California Cryobank donor and the children that stemmed from his donations, the film is streaming online until Thursday, October 27th on PBS’ website for any and all to view. The film is food for thought for any modern family, including anyone who’s ever looked at their parents and wondered just how alike you really are, in addition to, of course, those who have used anonymous donor sperm to conceive.

The film focuses on the children of California Cryobank Donor 150, whom we later find out is named Jeffrey, and who donated, according to his own admission, “sometimes up to four times a week” to the cryobank in the seventies. We first meet Jo Ellen, a teenager with lesbian moms from a small town in Pennsylvania, who sets out to find her donor, and using the Donor Sibling Registry, connect with various half-siblings, all conceived with Donor 150 sperm.

What follows is a fascinating look into Jeffrey’s life (Hint: He had a spread in Playgirl, and listed “dancer” on his sperm donor profile because he was touring with an all-male revue) as well as the perspectives of the children conceived with his sperm, all of whom express varying levels of interest in meeting him. What becomes maybe more interesting throughout the film is their interest in meeting each other, and the complicated nature of realizing you could be related to not one or two half-siblings, but 20 or more.

Sperm Donor

Now, I know lesbian parents that adamantly wanted an open donor, so their kids could get to know him if they wish; I also know lesbian parents that adamantly didn’t want their kids to be able to contact the donor later, most likely to avoid the sticky and somewhat awkward situations the film depicts at times (a.k.a. Jeffrey leading his donor brood down Venice Beach on bicycles, Jo Ellen realizing that Jeffrey is a bit of a – albeit loveable – crackpot). I see it from both sides – and this documentary does an excellent job of allowing the viewer to see the advantages and (possible) disadvantages of donor-conceived children meeting their biological parent down the line.

For one, Jeffrey comes off as sweet, but a little nuts – I am guessing any solid, down-to-earth family would be a little wary (dare I say, disappointed, after the great build-up some sperm banks make out of the qualifications of their donors) when they come to find that one half of their child’s genetic sequence comes from a Venice Beach hippie who lives in a trailer/van and occasionally lapses into conspiracy earthquake theories (although he is tall, which apparently is the most commonly requested trait amongst selected donors according to the California Cryobank director quoted in the film, Dr. Cappy Rothman).

On the other hand, Jeffrey also comes off as a pretty sweet guy. And I feel comfortable saying that queer folks would hopefully have a little more patience for someone who lives on the outside of society, with a big heart and expectations that don’t extend beyond peace, love and happiness. As a reader named Julia puts it on the show discussion forum:

Just watched this program and I am so impressed with the children, especially the young woman who initiated it. The children seemed to have such positive attitudes. Rather a poor peace animal loving hippie have many children than a rich violent angry man.

And it’s perhaps partly because of Jeffrey’s happy-go-lucky demeanor that the donor kids featured in the film seem pretty awesome across the board. Down-to-earth, animal and music-loving JoEllen looks like a young Winona Ryder and articulates her feelings with wisdom beyond her years. Her measured, clear-eyed acceptance of the situation would make any (gay or straight) mama proud. Fletcher, the sole boy featured in the film, and son to a two-mom family in Colorado, seems to have inherited all of the easy-going charm of Jeffrey, without the aimlessness and paranoid ramblings his donor exhibits. These two kids alone are enough to make a case that a solid “nuture” environment is the key to raising a well-rounded, happy adult. Sure, they have the same tendencies, talents, and traits as Jeffrey, but they seem much more sure of themselves and their own paths.

Illustrating this argument is Jeffrey’s memory of his own unhappy relationship with his father, a military man whose alcohol problem and rigid expectations appear to have contributed to Jeffrey’s estrangement from him later in life (and may be part of the reason he thinks the government controls the weather).

Of perhaps greater interest, and something the film only touches on briefly, is the apparently widely accepted practice of sperm banks not putting a specific cap on the number of births for their donors. While representatives from California Cryobank are interviewed in the film, the founder comes off as a bit creepy, exhibiting the “masturbatoriums” the sperm bank decks out for donors, and obsessively cleaning a smudge off of the glass doors within the facility. Presumably, this weirdness is balanced out by the fact that the film mentions that California Cryobank has the largest and widest selection of donors (this tagline is actually made to jump off the page with emphasis at one point in the film) of any sperm bank.

Note: I called California Cryobank a few months ago when I was putting together a Sperm Bank Comparison, precisely to find out if they put a limit on the number of pregnancies a donor was allowed to have before his sperm was taken off the market. The customer service representative I spoke to could not give me a number, or even a ballpark limit, instead repeatedly claiming that they determined when to limit donors based on a range of factors. When I asked if this meant a donor might have hundreds of pregnancies they told me that it was impossible to determine since many women bought caches of sperm from donors in hopes of conceiving more than one child, and that they “retired” donors when necessary based on a combination of vials shipped and pregnancies reported.

At another point in the film, Donor Sibling Registry founder Wendy Kramer finds a donor whose sperm has helped conceive 58 reported children, emphasis on reported, as women who conceive with donor sperm are not technically required to report their pregnancies.

Compare this with guidelines issued by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, who recommend restricting conceptions by individual donors to 25 births per population of 800,000.

As some It’s Conceivable readers have pointed out there are sperm banks out there that do limit sperm, and are transparent about it. For example, The Sperm Bank of California limits their donors to 10 births, preventing the 58-kid scenario that Wendy Kramer uncovers on screen. In the discussion thread for the PBS film, commenter Alice Ruby points out:

The Sperm Bank of California, the first program in the world to offer open-identity sperm donation back in 1983, also offers a Family Contact List that matches families who used the same donor since 1997. TSBC, the only non-profit sperm bank in the US, takes an ethical approach to donor conception with a limit of 10 families per donor and rigorous tracking of pregnancies and outcomes.

While Donor Unknown only scratches the surface of these issues, more recent articles in other publications have gone deeper into the subject. A September 2011 NY Times article highlights a donor who has 150 births and counting. A Daily Beast article published earlier this month highlighted one lesbian couple’s search for “free sperm” outside the regulations (and costs) of a sperm bank.

On a more personal level for lesbian and other queer couples, the film may serve as a gentle reminder that a donor-conceived child may be interested – at some point – to find out something about his or her donor. Almost all of the children in Donor Unknown expressed a fascination with – if not sustaining a relationship with Jeffrey – at least seeing pictures of him and having an idea of how he lives his life. Of note, the one Donor 150 child who seemed most upset was a teenager named Danielle, whose parents are a straight couple that used Jeffrey’s sperm, and who did not learn she was donor-conceived until recently. In the film, she expresses anger that she was “lied to” by her parents and was not told earlier that she was donor conceived.

So what do you think? If you are considering using donor sperm, will you use an open donor? If you have children conceived with donor sperm, have you had (or will you have) a conversation with them about their donor? Are you concerned about sperm donor birth limits?

Watch Donor Unknown HERE until Thursday, October 27th.

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