Editor’s note: I’ll be traveling throughout July, so anticipate more sporadic deliveries until August rolls around.
Over the past fifty years, the rise of artificial reproductive technologies has enabled our society to embark on one of the most revolutionary social experiments I suspect our world has ever seen. That’s hyperbolic, I know. But such overextended claims are hard to avoid after reading the New York Times’ essay by a young man with 32 half siblings.
The phenomenon of half-siblings is of course not new. But the scope and size of the problem doubtlessly is, as is the ambiguity and ignorance which is written into the practice of anonymous sperm donations: when people had half-siblings before, they generally had a decent idea who those siblings were and where they came from. Not anymore.
And the thing is, the lesbian couple seems to have mostly sleep-walked into it. The young man suggests that until he met two people at a summer camp who had learned they were half-siblings, he hadn’t considered whether he might have the same—and neither did his parents. “I think they were just so focused on thinking about the new family they were creating,” he suggests, “that they never stopped to think about the implications of the huge, inadvertent social experiment they were joining.” Well, yes. This is what happens both when we are seized by the tyrannical urgency of a deep felt need and when that felt need meets a social setting wherein the skids are already greased to meet it in a particular way. It’s hard in the midst of such a situation to maintain our reflective cool, to consider the vary many ramifications of what we are doing.
There is in this way, I think, an asymmetry in culpability between those who use anonymous sperm donors and those who donate the sperm. They are both wrong, of course. But demand needs supply, and in this case the sense of need for families and couples is so palpable that I’m inclined to tell a mitigating story about their wrongdoing. Think of it as a crime of passion, and it makes some sense. But I have considerably less for the sperm donors, who are ostensibly acting altruistically—but are also dissolving themselves from any of the responsibility for what actually happens with the people they help create. It is odd to think that maybe the altruistically motivated person is more of a wrongdoer than the one who is acting to alleviate their own pain. But the asymmetry between the triviality of the sperm donor’s originating act and the enormity of the ramifications for the person makes any kind of mitigating story difficult to tell.
And the ramifications for this young man and his siblings are considerable. The photographs that accompany the essay are extremely odd, but part of the point: they are intended to capture a kind of individuality that the author feels deprived of. As he puts it, the “sheer quantity of [half-siblings] gave me a feeling of having been mass-produced.” He’s not the only one who registers the sentiment. As one of his half-sisters puts it, “as more and more half siblings were introduced into my life, it made me feel like a statistic rather than an actual person.” The young man is particularly reflective, and notes that the “emotional labor of the project was intended to be almost reparative — a response to the transactional nature of the sperm bank and the financial exchange our parents made in order to create us.” I don’t know that I’ve read a better distillation of the fundamental problem with anonymous gamete donation than that: the bifurcation between the emotional and affective labor of caring for a child, and the economy of creating a child introduces a rupture into the child’s own self-understanding, which demands their own emotional work to overcome.
It is true, of course, that practically everyone has to undertake an exploratory voyage into their own origins at some point. But having an anonymous donor—the “spectral figure hovering above [their] lives”—means being disadvantaged from the outset in undertaking that quest. Some might be tempted to say such a disadvantage is trivial, that they can and will gain everything truly valuable about the world without knowing one of the persons from whom they have their life and existence. But one wonders: in a world of microaggressions, is diminishing the cognitive and affective burden anonymous origins places upon an individual really palatable? I doubt it. And therein may be our best hope to oppose a practice that is likely to become even more widespread.