Originally published at The Public Discourse.
Twenty-five years ago, I was born to a woman married to an infertile man. His infertility motivated their purchase of anonymous sperm. My biological father’s lifetime contribution to me and my existence arrived in a nondescript box, courtesy of our local mailman. The circumstances of my conception have inspired me to think about certain things that many people take for granted. Sex was not necessary for me to exist. I was not the natural fruit of a marriage. I was a very clear decision, an economic transaction and exchange of services rendered by buyers and sellers who did not know each other—not even as acquaintances.
What inspired my biological father to sell his seed away into the wild ether? What motivated my mother to create me with a total stranger?
I believe it was the promise of immortality.
The dynamic ways in which we humans pursue immortality are blooming as we speak, with sci-fi advances in reproductive and bio-technologies, and a culture ever more egocentric. Our religions, history books, literature, music, film, and entertainment are rich with promises, plots, and language about immortality and longevity. God said that obedience to his teachings will grant us eternal youth beside him forever, in heaven. Ponce de Leon risked his life to travel to the New World in search of fame and the Fountain of Youth. Today, scientists like Aubrey De Grey at the SENS Foundation gain notoriety by making big advances in “age intervention” technology and pushing the human lifespan as long and far as it will go. Plastic surgeons make billions of dollars each year by preserving and restoring youth through surgery.
There are two types of immortality: genetic and memetic. Genetic immortality includes the preservation as well as the reproduction of genes. Living forever like Duncan MacLeod in Highlander is one example of genetic immortality through preservation; freezing your body cryogenically is another. Genghis Khan and his now 16 million living descendants are an example of genetic immortality through reproduction. Memetic immortality, on the other hand, has little to do with the physical matter of our bodies. It is the theory that mental content and “cultural units”—ideas, beliefs, patterns of behavior, etc., can be reproduced from mind to mind—as individuals influence each other to adopt new ways of thinking, preferences, and so on.
Leonardo da Vinci was childless, but his influence is still felt today through his many cultural contributions; few people, at least in the Western World, would fail to recognize the Mona Lisa. William Shakespeare’s blood-line ended centuries ago, but his words “to be or not to be” echo still. Aristotle, Andy Warhol, Benjamin Franklin, and Marie Curie are all long in the grave, and yet they have left behind ideas, art, and scientific breakthroughs that have spread and maintained importance as classic examples of human achievement. Whatever system of values, culture, and beliefs you live by, these are memes that are preserved and reproduced through you, the host.
The kind of animal that we are, human, has the privilege to host both genes and memes. We preserve and pass on our brown eyes, our bony knees, and our academic potential. We also preserve and pass on memes such as a love of tennis, nostalgia for bluegrass music, and Christian values.
Genes and memes can only survive and spread by the will of their host. The most prolific genes and memes are the ones that find hosts who are willing to do anything to achieve immortality—even if that means pillaging towns and raping women as Genghis Khan once did, creating institutionalized racism for the preservation of recessive blue eyes and white skin, or showing up to the Grammies in a meat dress to ensure that your name will be spoken, your image will be seen, and your music will be listened to, for at least a few more days. Suicidal virgins don’t pass on their genes. Shy musicians never get arenas full of people singing their refrains in unison.
So how does all of this tie into reproductive technologies?
Having children is our only path to achieving both genetic and memetic immortality. Bearing and raising your own biological child guarantees that both your genes and memes will live on. As reproductive technologies and bio-industries offer more and more “services” to consumers to destroy, preserve, and create life, we see these industries gaining huge profits, as people are now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, per household, in hopes of having their own genetic children and raising them.
I understand now that my father did not sell his seed for altruistic reasons. It is my opinion that he took advantage of my mother’s need for genetic and memetic immortality (though she would never characterize it as such), as an avenue toward his own genetic immortality—and how thrifty of him. Fifty years ago a man had to devote his life through marriage to pass on his genes. Today he doesn’t even have to buy his mother’s child a drink.
So why do infertile people agree to use donors in the hopes of becoming social parents to a child with whom they have no genetic link?
I believe they endure the use of gamete donors because they don’t want their husbands or wives to leave them—their husbands and wives who desperately want to have a biological child and are willing to divorce their infertile partners in order to achieve this goal. But for the few infertile men and women out there who truly are enthusiastic about using third-party reproduction to create their families, I believe they find redemption and purpose in being able to pass down their beliefs, values, and ways of life. I believe they are inspired by the pursuit of memetic immortality.
One year ago, I started something called The Anonymous Us Project, a story-collective that invites voluntary and involuntary participants in reproductive technologies, but especially donor-conceived people, to contribute their stories and insights—anonymously. Now, just after the site’s first birthday, I’ve collected almost a hundred stories from anonymous authors around the world. Our motto is, “Anonymity in donor-conception hides the truth, but anonymity in story-telling reveals it.” I’d like to share with you two quotes from sperm donors who have written to the site:
“I can’t describe the happiness of hearing the woman being so surprised and happy after years of sadness and desperation and yes….it was a very good feeling to know there is a new heart beating out there and that it is your biological descendant…. I know someone could think there is also a narcissistic element and I admit there is: I am considered good looking and especially the women of my family (my mum and my sister) are stunningly beautiful so I think the kids will be quite lucky inheriting some of their features. It’s nice to think there will be kids with your eyes, and your expression out there and maybe even kids having similarities in psyche.”
“I am a sperm donor. And by being that, I am graced to have the chance of having biological descendants, a succession, that otherwise would not be a self-understood part of this human experience called life.”
And here are two quotes from social parents who have used donors to create their families:
“I married young and have genetic and biological children. They are a blessing. That marriage ended and years later I met a wonderful man. We were older and knew my ovaries were unlikely to do the job but he came to me without any children of his own and he wanted kids and I love kids and so we decided to try to have kids. I’m blessed to be the biological mother of our children. The genetic bit, the blueprint if you will, came from another woman who donated. I’m OK with that. I wanted HIS kids to love and I got to gestate our children and so have that biological connection. The genetic link isn’t irrelevant but it also doesn’t matter to me since I got to pass on my genes already.”
“After 10 years of marriage and many years of waiting and hoping for pregnancy my husband was given the diagnosis of infertility. His sperm count was zero, there was no chance whatsoever of us producing his biological child. Initially we decided to remain childless, but I fell into depression, an illness I have never faced before or since then, but it was horrible. And the issue had in general put our marriage at risk. So we sat down together one evening and talked through all the options. Within a short amount of time we were in agreement to try to become parents with the help of a sperm donor.”
There is a mighty and visceral force behind this need to preserve and reproduce ourselves. The bio-technologies we are using and experimenting with today in order to accommodate this desire are beginning to offer opportunities for even fuller genetic and memetic preservation/reproduction. We have single-moms-by-choice, single-dads-by-choice, and soon perhaps even cloning. But does society have a responsibility to provide children to those who for whatever reason were not able or willing to do it the old-fashioned way?
I believe genetic and memetic reproduction through child-bearing is a privilege that also comes with heavy responsibilities, and both the biological mother and father are liable for meeting such standards of care. We’re losing those standards. We should be fighting for a society where every man who pursues an act that effectively creates a child, should be held accountable to that child for moral and financial support.
Every person is vulnerable to feelings of abandonment by a biological parent that is absent. The satisfaction gamete donors describe when speaking of their biological descendants does not automatically transfer to the child, but may rather trigger contempt and rage towards a parent they feel betrayed by. A common remark I hear from people suspicious of dissenting donor-conceived people is, how could you be so ungrateful for life? Don’t you know how badly your parents wanted you? I could accept that comment if it weren’t for one parent’s total absence and mind-boggling anonymity. No, there is something else here at work. They did not just want me. Let us not lose our backbone and take to trading and manufacturing babies to quench the thirst of adults, desperate to spread their genes and memes. Immortality is not an entitlement.
Alana S. Newman is founder of The Anonymous Us Project.