Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bad Currency at the Sperm Bank

Modernity at times seems to hold that human sexuality and the family can be reinvented in any number of ways in order to suit our desires and then to be utterly shocked when things go wrong. It's hard to imagine a clearer case of this than a news story that wandered across my feed today about women who have conceived children via a sperm bank and now are upset to discover that that paternity that they bought is not quite what they expected.
Angie Collins opened her laptop one evening in June 2014 to a Facebook message she says “made her heart sink like a lead ball into my stomach.”

It was from a woman in the United States who had used the same sperm donor as she had to get pregnant. They knew each other from an online forum that connects donor-conceived families.

The woman wrote she had learned some unsettling information about their supposedly anonymous donor. He was not the healthy man advertised on his sperm-bank profile. She had discovered he has schizophrenia, a serious mental illness that, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, occurs in 10 per cent of people who have a parent with it.
Instead, Chris Aggeles, a now 39-year-old man from Georgia, has struggled with serious mental illness for much of his adult life. In addition to schizophrenia, court documents show he has had diagnoses of bipolar and narcissistic personality disorders, and has described himself as having schizoaffective disorder.

He has a history of run-ins with the law, has done time in jail, dropped out of college and struggled in the past to hold down jobs.

His sperm has been used to create 36 children: 19 boys and 17 girls from 26 families, according to a 2014 email to Collins from Georgia-based sperm bank Xytex Corp.
Several of these women who have conceived children by using the sperm of Aggeles are now suing the sperm bank they purchased the sperm from, both claiming fraud and seeking to force the sperm bank to actually verify the personal and medical histories that sperm donors put forward.

Xytex (which appears to sell sperm for $500-$700 per implantation, having obtained it from men who are paid somewhere between $30-$150 per batch of sperm) claims they have done nothing wrong because they do check their donors for a specific list of sexually transmitted diseases, and they warn customers via their fine print that all other claims on the website about the men whose sperm is for sale are unverified.

The reproductive fantasy land that these people have put themselves into is sad, but is also deeply appalling. The article says:
Collins always wanted to have children, but being in a same-sex relationship presented a challenge. In need of sperm, she and Hanson spent about four months in 2006 researching their options.

“I didn’t have a friend in mind and my doctor was actually discouraging of using a known donor,” she says.

A fertility specialist suggested using a sperm bank, explaining that finding a known donor could be difficult and raise custody issues.
So Collins wants to have children, however she is in a type of relationship (a woman with another woman) which is by its nature infertile. She talks to a doctor about getting pregnant, and the doctor strongly encourages her not to get pregnant with a man she actually knows. Why? Because then the man who was the father of her child might actually want to be treated as the father of her child; he might want to have a relationship with the child which his sperm was used to produce.

She wants to be a mother, but she doesn't want her child to have a father. She's at war with basic human realities, but never fear, for there is a fertility industry out there eager to sell her a fantasy:
In 2006, Collins pored over Xytex’s online catalogue in search of a donor. From hundreds of profiles, she zeroed in on “donor 9623” because he was “the male version of my partner,” she says. Like Hanson, the man in the ad was blue eyed, intelligent, academically accomplished and musically gifted.

The donor’s full profile, an archived copy of which can still be found on Xytex’s website, states he has an IQ of 160 (the same as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking), bachelor’s and master’s degrees in neuroscience and is pursuing a PhD.

He has received international acclaim for his talent as a drummer, it says.
For an extra fee, prospective families could download an audio interview of 9623, conducted by Xytex corporate donor counsellor Mary Hartley, who praises him as the “perfect donor.”

Obtained by the Star, the 2006 recording portrays an articulate and impressive-sounding young man who says he speaks five languages, is studying artificial intelligence and plans on becoming a professor of biomedical robotics at a medical school.

He says he reads four or five books a month (“non-fiction mostly”) and tells of once winning a pizza party at Pizza Hut because he read 300 books in a single month.

Commenting on his motivation to donate, 9623 says: “Sure, at first the money is definitely an attraction. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t, but what really has kept me coming is the fact that I know that I am helping … to give parents who are very eager to have a child one of the greatest gifts in the world, their child. I can’t deny the power of that.”
She admits there was one sentence that gave her pause: “The medical and social history was provided by the donor and cannot be verified for accuracy.”

Collins says she was concerned enough to call Xytex and alleges that her misgivings were allayed when a company representative told her: “We do all of our own internal testing to the degree that you will know more about your donor than your own partner.”
I realize that Collins has been taken advantage of here, but it's kind of shocking that someone would allow herself to be sold something which very nearly screams "too good to be true". An internationally known musician with the IQ of Einstein who allegedly once read 300 books in a month?

This reminded me of a story I read some years back about rich business men who were scammed by a call girl network alleging that all their call girls were Ivy League graduates from good families with no substance abuse problems and engaged in challenging professional or academic work. That's a fantasy for sale. How likely is a woman of that description going to be to want to sell her body to random strangers, even rich random strangers?

Here, instead, is a fantasy for sale to the want-to-be mother: A successful artist and scientific genius is eager to provide you with the child of your dreams, and he's going to put himself through the trouble of medical tests and masturbating into a bottle for fifty bucks a pop just to allow you to affordably buy a child with a background far more elite than anyone who's actually lining up to sire a child on you.

But like so many fantasies for sale, this turns out to be pure fraud:
An Oct. 2005 forensic report, obtained from the Cobb County Superior Court in Georgia, shows he was charged with burglary seven months earlier, when he was 28. He allegedly broke into a house and stole a large number of musical instruments.

The report was prepared by a psychologist who assessed him and determined he was competent to stand trial despite being mentally ill.

There was some disagreement over Aggeles’ diagnosis with hospital records showing an earlier diagnosis of cannabis-induced psychotic disorder had been changed to schizophrenia.

The report also states Aggeles had experienced “significant grandiose delusions” and been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder as well as bipolar disorder.

Aggeles told the psychologist he had a seven-year history of psychiatric problems and had been hospitalized “numerous” times.

The forensic report goes on to say that he had a history of arrests for trespassing, DUI and disorderly conduct. The Star was unable to confirm the outcome of those arrests.

The Star also obtained from the court a transcript from a Nov. 2005 hearing during which Aggeles pleaded guilty to the burglary charge. Aggeles is quoted as telling the court he has bipolar and schizoaffective disorders.

The transcript indicates he was not receiving proper medical treatment at the time of the break-in, but by his plea hearing, was on medication and regularly seeing a psychiatrist.

His stepfather testified that Aggeles had suffered a series of psychotic episodes since age 19. Prior to that, the young man was on a promising trajectory. Very bright, he graduated from high school as an honour student and began studying at the University of Georgia (UGA) on a full scholarship.

“High stress situations and lack of medication cause him to have psychotic episodes . . . With supervision with medication, I think he is a productive citizen,” the stepfather told the court.

Aggeles mother also testified her son committed the burglary because his medication had been changed “and he was not mentally sane as a result and decided to take affairs into his own crazy head.”

She explained he had a “very sporadic” work history and was not able to hold jobs for long. At the time, he had been working at the Outback Steakhouse for a month and prior to that at “a pizza place” for two months.

But things “finally” seemed to be turning around for Aggeles, his mother told the court, explaining that “for the first time in 10 years,” he was able to take care of his mental health, education and employment.

Facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail, Aggeles was sentenced instead as a first offender, a disposition that meant a felony conviction would not appear on his record so long as he obeyed numerous conditions, among them staying on medication and continuing medical treatment.

He was ordered incarcerated for eight months with the rest of a 10-year sentence to be served on probation, according to a copy of the disposition obtained by the Star.

Aggeles promised to return to Athens Technical College from where he had dropped out the previous year. He said he wanted to get his grade point average up, return to UGA and get his scholarship back.

“I’m very repentant and it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” Aggeles told the court. “I will never, ever commit another crime.”

In delivering her sentence, Justice Adele Grubbs said: “Somehow he’s got to learn that he is personally responsible for his actions, not anybody else.”

Aggeles did manage to make it back to UGA, graduating just last year. Two decades after starting at the university, he graduated with a bachelor’s in cognitive science, minoring in computer science, according to the registrar’s office. He attended the university in 1995 and 1996, then again from 2012 to 2015.
In an open letter posted on the company’s website last April, president Kevin O’Brien indicated Xytex relies on the honour system when it comes to collecting medical and social histories of donors. Xytex has always been upfront about letting would-be parents know the company does not corroborate such information, he said.

“He (Aggeles) reported a good health history and stated in his application that he had no physical or medical impairments. This information was passed on to the couple, who were clearly informed the representations were reported by the donor and were not verified by Xytex,” O’Brien wrote, referring to Collins and Hanson.
Collins' closing reaction is instructive, though I'm not sure she realizes the way in which it is:
From all appearances, Collins’ son, now 8, is happy and healthy.

The sweet, blond boy does well in school and is musically gifted. Like his donor, he plays the drums.

But Collins can’t help but worry for him.

“The most important entity to me is potentially facing a very debilitating lifestyle,” she says.

She says she feels cheated: “I felt like I was duped by Xytex and I failed my son for having chosen Xytex. In hindsight, a hitchhiker on the side of the road would have been a far more responsible option for conceiving a child.”
She was duped so easily because she tried to turn a fundamentally human interaction into the purchase of a commodity. We're not meant to buy our children from a catalog. Children have the right to be born to a mother and a father, to people who will care for them and rear them. If she'd even picked up a stranger at a bar, she would have at least had a certain degree of human interaction with him, some hint of whether he seemed like the sort of person whom she would want as the father of her child.

But this should in turn point to the real truth of the matter. We're not meant to select the people we have children with from a catalog. We're meant to get to know them, to value them, to want to raise children with them. Even then, there will be those who feel themselves deceived, people who marry the smooth talker who turns out to be very different in the long run of marriage than they seemed during the heady days of courtship. But at least in such a circumstance people have tried to get to know the person they are conceiving children with.

When people try to purchase parenthood as a commodity, they very nearly ask for these kind of deceptions.


Ellen said...

A friend of mine is gay and civilly married a woman. About a year ago they started trying to conceive using a sperm bank. They have not had success yet and my friend's wife has become quite vocal (especially on social media) regarding their "infertility" and the heartbreak it has brought. My husband and I struggled for 2 years and through 3 miscarriages to conceive and successfully carry a second child. By the second year, I was upset and fairly frantic. We went to a Catholic infertility seminar to learn what our options were and a priest gave a talk where he said, "children are a gift, not a right." It stopped me short because that is exactly how we act as a society: treating children as a commodity that can either be discarded at will or something "owed" to us no matter what the cost or violation of the child's rights. I thought I was owed a child on some level. My friend's wife has that same delusion to the point they mourn the infertility of an intrinsically infertile union (a given) because they can't get pregnant even if it is their will and "right." Of course I pray for them and their choices regarding having a child. But I did really struggle personally when they started comparing their infertility to mine because it felt like a slap in the face on some level for two women to claim the same expectations that my husband and I have reproductively. But that is the society we live in. I recently heard about a surrogate who was carrying triplets for a single father. He asked her to abort two of the babies because of financial and health concerns. She refused and is now suing him for custody. Her lawyer describes surrogacy as slavery in some of the court documents. It is terrifying to watch these violations if the family and children, only to see these instances where, in the end, it's the innocent children who suffer the most.

Rob said...

As I tell my students, having kids is not like shopping for a car. You don't get to just pick how many you are going to have. Apparently Xytex disagrees with me.

Great post. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Foxfier said...

A delicate topic, since it's so close to heart-- and absolutely anything you say that is true could feel like a jab in the wound for someone like Ellen here, or some of my friends who are suffering infertility.

How do you tell someone the truth when you know that it will just make them hurt, and they'll ignore it because they're in so much pain?

(That's rhetorical-- I know that it's something you have to figure out for each person you're dealing with.)

Ari Mack said...

Such a sad state of affairs. I worry for her son. Mental illness usually manifests in late teens, early twenties, especially for boys. They won't know for years if he inherited the mental illness from his father.