Opinion

Sperm donation boomed during the pandemic. Is that a feminist victory?

Maybe estranged patriarchy is still just patriarchy

2021 was full of surprises: The Capitol riot was a bit of a shock; COVID-19 variants sprung up left and right; and, perhaps strangest of all, sperm was all over the papers.

That's because the pandemic caused a serious shortage in the market for sperm. Many people have put off having children while COVID runs its course. But among those with male infertility or no male partner, the luxury of working remotely, and the means to pay for some sperm, the pandemic offered a golden opportunity to make dreams of a family a reality. But just as demand skyrocketed, donations fell, and in the resulting shortage, women turned instead to unregulated Facebook groups with names like "Sperm Donation USA." The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Esquire all ran features on this growing underground world of sperm philanthropy. 

The picture that emerged should give the feminists among us a lot to mull. Artificial insemination by donors is part of a range of assisted reproduction tools that allow people to have children outside the bounds of a heterosexual relationship between two fertile people. It opens up procreative possibilities not only for couples struggling with infertility, but also for women who, for whatever reason, aren't in a committed relationship, as well as lesbian and gay couples.

In other words, sperm donation is supposed to liberate people from traditional gender roles. But the recent spotlight on informal donation practices suggests it often does exactly the opposite.

The informal market for sperm differs from its more clinical counterpart. Traditional sperm banks usually keep the personal information of the donor private, at least until the child turns 18. But in the world of Facebook sperm sharing, donors and donees seek each other out, first online, then in person.

"Like online dating, the matchmaking kicks off with a direct message from either party expressing interest, before an offline get-to-know-you," wrote Tonya Russell in The Atlantic. And the vetting goes in both directions: Understandably, many donors want assurance that the person raising their biological child has the means and temperament to raise them well.

This produces a variety of unconventional arrangements. Some donors, Russell reported, refuse to donate "artificially" and arrange meet-ups to donate the old-fashioned way. In many cases, donors maintain some sort of relationship with the children they sire, or at least hope their children will reach out to them in the future, establishing them as what researcher Nicole Bergen refers to as an "estranged patriarch."

"I have this vision of me being in my 50s and 60s, and I have a large dinner table, and I'm inviting all my donor kids to join me for dinner to tell me their stories, their journeys," one popular 30-year-old donor told The New York Times.

Arguably the most famous of these estranged-patriarchs-in-the-making is Ari Nagel, who has fathered nearly 100 children through word-of-mouth sperm donation. Nagel is a strange figure who stays in loose contact with many of the women he's impregnated, as well as with their children. Per Esquire's sweeping profile, the women are friendly with each other, referring to each other's children as nieces and nephews and to themselves as "Ari's baby mamas."

To his offspring, Nagel plays a kind of distant father figure, swooping in for trips to the park while he's in town to catch another woman's fertile window. He reminds me a little of Stiva Oblonsky from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a charming father of six who flits in and out of his childrens' lives but is otherwise entirely unencumbered by their needs, socializing and drinking and philandering as he pleases.

And that similarity is revealing: The novel is set in imperial Russia in the 1800s, a country still under the feudal system. Central characters have a serious discussion about whether women ought to be educated. It is not a feminist utopia — and maybe sperm donation patriarchy isn't either. 

After all, the arrangement Nagel has with his baby mamas is arguably not just regressive but antediluvian. The imbalance of parental responsibility is more extreme than any 1950s gender stereotype. Nagel gets to enjoy casual relationships with dozens of children, and his "baby mamas" do literally all of the work of providing for their wellbeing.

Even if we step back from an extreme example like Nagel, the population of people raising children after assisted reproduction is overwhelmingly feminine. There's no reliable data on exactly how many children are conceived by donor sperm each year, but according to the Times report, sperm banks report about 20 percent of their clients are heterosexual couples, while the rest are gay women or single moms by choice.

The population of men who adopt children or have them through surrogacy doesn't come close to counterbalancing this distribution — which makes sense, as even a $1000 vial of sperm is much less expensive than a $30,000 adoption or $100,000 surrogacy. That's part of why the vast majority of same-sex couples raising children are female, as are the vast majority of single parents, whether they're single by choice or not.

All told, artificial means of becoming parents seem to be upholding, rather than dismantling, a gendered division of aggregate reproductive labor.

Whether or not that matters to you will depend not only on whether you care about gender equality, but what your vision of gender equality looks like. Does achieving parity in domestic labor matter? What about parity in reproduction, insofar as that's possible? Or should women pursue reproduction, including reproduction without male responsibility, guided by what they personally want instead of loyalty to some abstract principle of equality?

Feminism doesn't have a single answer to any of these questions, nor can I answer them here. Some feminists, like Robyn Rowland, fear the commodification of reproduction as a threat to women's self-determination over their bodies, even going so far as to say that women struggling with infertility should forgo the use of these technologies for the sake of women "as a social group." Others, such as Rosalind Petchesky, countered that, far from being imposed on women, reproductive technology is "a critical tool of reproductive freedom." Shulamith Firestone also saw liberation in reproductive technology, but, believing childbearing was the root cause of women's societal oppression, argued true equality would only be achieved if it was used to free women from their biologically-imposed reproductive burden. 

Whatever else comes out of the sperm donation boom within the COVID baby bust, it may be some clarity on these points. This year and into the next, unknown thousands of babies whose conception began in the comment threads of "Sperm Donation USA" will be born. And, two decades hence, they'll be uniquely positioned to tell us: Is the new estranged patriarch any less oppressive than the old?

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