Sperm and sensibility | Daily News

Sperm and sensibility

Modern world of designer children, based on age-old preoccupations

In the insular world of a Jane Austen novel, the rules of the romantic game are well defined. The bit character Charlotte, for instance, in Pride and Prejudice, has a clearly set deadline if she wants to secure her future. She pragmatically “settles” for the tediously pompous vicar Mr Collins, for no other reason than because she is twenty-seven, when the game of choosing is over for women in Austen’s world.

Her younger more alluring friends have more time and can ogle better prey – like Mr Bingley. Incontrovertibly a catch, he is kindly, mellow, easily led, well-resourced in the way that counts in this game, and pleasing in appearance. Indeed, his arrival in a mythical town in early nineteenth-century England sets the novel in motion with a flurry of female activity. But his friend the aloof and arrogant Mr Darcy ends up being the real romantic hero, worth far more than Mr Bingley.

Military garb

Elizabeth Bennet falls for him after overcoming pride on his part, and prejudice on hers; or to invoke another Austen title, by merging “sense and sensibility” (economic pragmatism and romantic love or affinity). A fourth male, Mr Wickham, is a decoy: brilliantly feathered in military garb and glib, he is camouflaged as a catch but is in fact insolvent as well as deceitful. Of course, given the requirements of dramatic tension, Elizabeth almost falls for him first.

It’s perhaps no accident that Charles Darwin read Austen’s stylized courtship plots over and again. Her corseted gentrified characters may now seem akin to a weird species of exotically plumed bird, and yet the larger drama of choosing – of who chooses whom, and the timing of that choice – remains a loaded affair, even when it is about swiping left or right, or about choosing sperm from a catalogue.

In Romancing the Sperm, the anthropologist Diane Tober has written a retrospective ethnographic study of the first generation of women openly to buy sperm to make families. The book is about female choice, or, as she puts it, “the biopolitics” of choice when women have resources of their own and the sperm of various male types can be bottled, screened, studied for motility, frozen, catalogued and transported. It focuses on a moment, the 1990s, in San Francisco, and California at large, and then revisits the scene of this first ethnography in 2017 or thereabouts. While Tober’s book is a far cry from Austen’s novels, it centres every bit as much on the drama of choosing – the fantasy and fetish, sense and sensibility, as well as the age-related deadlines – as those novels do. The object of desire here is not a Mr Darcy or Mr Bingley but the child their sperm might produce – hence the notion of “romancing” the sperm. But romancing is now consumption: choosing without being chosen, a transactional act between women and men who would otherwise not make a child together. Inevitably, conservative politicians such as the current US Vice President, Mike Pence, wedded to the old romantic arrangements, detect in these new ones Armageddon.

Postmenopausal births

Unsurprisingly perhaps, California in general was ground zero of reproductive change – or, in another view, the unregulated wild west of innovation. It was there that the first unabashedly obvious postmenopausal births happened, as well as the lesbian baby boom. Older lesbian and single women appropriated practices like sperm (and egg) donation that were initially designed to help infertile heterosexual couples.

Tober’s initial wave of in-depth interviews was with forty-two women whom she calls reproductive pioneers, and her book is rich with details about the texture of their lives, the travails of soliciting and ferrying “sperm-to-go”, the democratization of reproductive choice, and about loss.

Most of the women are professionals. Some had failed to find Mr or Ms Right in time, their deadline now being around the age of thirty-seven, sometimes forty. She captures their desperation to have a child against the ticking of the clock, and their grim humour, as well as the activism of some that led to legal changes designed to accommodate new kinds of families. But her main insights relate to how women choose sperm. We think of sperm as cheap (at least compared to eggs, which cost $2,000 or more apiece, if that’s the comparison, although no one buys just one egg), but still sperm isn’t free if it comes from a bank and has been screened.

At $120 or so a vial in the 1990s, now sometimes $800 or more, costs escalate, especially when women need other fertility services. In a telling extended quote, one older lesbian couple eyeing their declining egg supply as well as bank balance describes how their criteria changed with the passing of months and then years: “we had this whole list of, he had to be smart, attractive, and seem like a nice guy. Now at this point, it’s give me a high sperm count. Give me the most loaded count you can come up with”.

Heritable traits

Tober also interviewed the staff of two banks that made against-the-cultural-grain decisions about who was fit to be a donor, or, indeed, a parent. The niche Rainbow Bank, founded and run by an entrepreneurial gay doctor, catered specifically to lesbians and used mostly gay donors when other banks excluded them. It also facilitated “egg meet sperm” parties, which Tober’s descriptions suggest are as freighted with gossip qw`as any Austenian ball or high school prom – except that here it is older women ogling young men for their desirable heritable traits.

The woman-run non-profit bank called the Sperm Bank of California served, from its inception in the 1980s, a racially diverse clientele without regard to sexual orientation or marital status. A measure of how much it contributed to, or at least prefigured, changing norms in other places is reflected in the fact that the UK, Finland and Sweden have essentially adopted its protocols. It was the first bank to offer “identity release” donors, who become known when a child turns eighteen – now standard practice, as it is recognized to be in the best interest of the child. And, thanks in part to its actions, in 2016, “parent” and “parent” have replaced “mother” and “father” on birth certificates in California.

At the heart of the book, however, are the dynamics of choice. The ridiculously misguided Genius Sperm Bank – or Repository for Germinal Choice, as it was called – was a decade-long California-based experiment that closed its doors in 1992. Its founder, an octogenarian businessman, had not learned the lessons of the first half of the twentieth century. Thinking to engage in “public service” by enhancing the American gene pool, he drove around the country collecting the sperm of Nobel laureates, or of the closest approximations he could find. He then created “catalogues” of his collection, marketing his vials solely to educated white women with infertile husbands. Around 200 mostly blond babies ensued. Symptomatic of his hubris and myopia was that he fetishized “genius” as the solution to societal ills. It never occurred to him to wonder if the sperm of seventy-year-old Laureates – slow, frayed and likely chock full of mutations – was the best ingredient for creating healthy babies. Or indeed to question the concept of genius itself.

-Times Literary Supplement


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