O Father Where Art Thou?

by Belle Waring on March 19, 2006

This NYT Magazine article about women who are choosing to become single mothers by using donor sperm is very interesting. The article is entirely focussed on the women’s side; no sperm donors are interviewed. But I actually thought the strangest fact was this:

…the Aryan bodybuilder with the leaping sperm has fathered 21 children (and counting — he is still an active donor), including four sets of twins. These children are all 3 and under, and their families — four lesbian couples, three heterosexual couples and six single mothers — have formed their own Listserv, where photographs of the children (all blond, with a strong familial resemblance) are posted, and daily e-mail messages are exchanged about birthdays, toilet training and the like. They are planning a group vacation in 2007.

21 children? That’s a lot of children. Is there a limit to how many children the fertility clinics will allow a single man to father? These people seem to live in NYC, so the chances of two unknowing half-siblings turning Tristan and Isolde Seigmund and Seiglinde, duh (thanks Matt) are small (and this listserv forestalls the possibility in any case). Or, if he prefers younger women, could a reverse Holy Sinner situation loom in his future? I am most interested in what this guy thinks, though. I mean, he’s a bodybuilder, which at least implies a certain degree of narcissism. It can only enhance his self-image that he’s got such motile sperm and that he is so frequently chosen by the would-be mothers–he’s the man! I’m sure we can all spin a nice Darwinian tale about how he’s maximizing his chances for reproductive sucess (and boy is he ever!), but is that really the sort of thing that consciously motivates people? Does he turn and look at every tow-headed kid on the playground as he walks by, wondering? What will he feel like when he has a child of his own, and it’s his 28th child?

UPDATE: it has been suggested in coments that he might not even know–do they really not tell you at the clinic? Also, it occurred to me that this number is only of children whose parents have registered on this donor sibling list; he may well already have 50 kids.



abb1 03.19.06 at 5:30 am

Similar phenomenon was addressed in Fuckland, I believe. I didn’t see the movie, but I am sure there’s someone here who did.


nik 03.19.06 at 8:29 am

I have to say I presume the main conscious motivating factor for him was cash. It is somewhat exploitative to pay someone to become a father and to sign a contract which means they cease to have any connection to their children.

I’m not sure if donors have the right to know how many children they’ve fathered. Doesn’t the anonymity provision of the contract and the absence of legal fatherhood mean that once you’ve donated that’s it. I can’t imagine every time your donation has been successfully used you get a letter through the door to inform you of the fact. And I imagine in cases of home insemination even the clinic doesn’t know of every instance where a donation has been successfully used.


Matt 03.19.06 at 8:39 am

I just wonder if he calls himself the Sperminator. He’s nearly caught up, if I recall correctly, w/ the ex fertility clinic head who was secrectly impregnating women with his own sperm several years ago. Also, this sounds like it could make a great TV sit-com.


Tobias Schwarz 03.19.06 at 8:55 am

Ah, the “joys” of the modern world. Remember how the wannabe Aryan bodybuilder Charles Lindberg had to jump through oh-so-many loops to not even get to the point where this guy is already… the familial aspects of the listserv community are interesting as well.


James Wimberley 03.19.06 at 9:03 am

“The chances of two unknowing half-siblings turning Tristan and Isolde are small (and this listserv forestalls the possibility in any case.” Hum. The incest taboo is generated naturally in traditional families by simple proximity in infancy (Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, Penguin edn. 1997, pp 455 ff). Occasional socialisation doesn’t hack it. These jolly get-togethers are actually maximising the chance of incest, if that’s what it is. Should we or the moms be worried? I don’t know, but if they are, best move away from the group.


Kieran Healy 03.19.06 at 9:21 am

Clinics look for men w/high-count, motile sperm because the little buggers have to survive the freezing process. The result is that clinics often have to go to considerable effort to find the right guy — most sperm donors are rejected. So they want to keep the good ones.


David Velleman 03.19.06 at 9:49 am

How interesting that you focus on the (undeniable) character flaws of the sperm donor, when the article is primarily about the shallowness and selfishness of the prospective mothers.


Functional 03.19.06 at 10:36 am

Isn’t this all a little bit sick? There are so many needy kids in the world that are up for adoption, and these rich Westerners are buying the sperm of an “Aryan bodybuilder”?!?


The Modesto Kid 03.19.06 at 10:45 am

Mr Welleman: How is Belle focusing on “the character flaws of the sperm donor”? I don’t see that in at all in the post. Or are you addressing one of the commenters? I also didn’t see much focus on the character flaws of the donor in the comments thread — the only comment I would really read as critical of anybody is 7, which is (a) not specifically critical of the donor and (b) subsequent to your complaint.


Matt Austern 03.19.06 at 11:05 am

Dear, dear. You have the wrong Wagner! The danger is of two of the children pulling a Siegmund and Sieglinde.

If this man only has one eye, then we know we’re in trouble.


Matt McIrvin 03.19.06 at 11:13 am

I don’t really see it as much sicker than wanting to breed a child with your own partner, and I’m currently in the process of doing that, so I guess you can fire away. Many people want to have their own kids. Considered as utilitarian moral agents in a world with needy children, I guess it’s wrong for them to want that, but I think it’s understandable.

The article is written in that rich-New-Yorker-lifestyle-piece tone that can easily be read as condemnatory if you want to, and some of the amateur eugenics on display seems misguided, but, really, I don’t see this as a huge social trend that is going to wreck civilization.


Jim Harrison 03.19.06 at 12:52 pm

Where polygamy is prevails, rich or powerful men can have enormous numbers of offspring. If memory serves, one North African leader, Mahmud the Ruthless, was said to have had 3,000 children and it has been asserted that one out of every two hundred men world-wide carries the Y chromosome of Genghis Khan, a leader who apparently put the potent back in potentate. So maybe it’s progress if we’ve switched over from military monsters to preening body builders.


novalis 03.19.06 at 1:37 pm

Better to get sperm from anonymous donors than risk having your chance to breed disappear forever.


Scott Eric Kaufman 03.19.06 at 2:52 pm

“Aryan body-builder,” Steven Colbert, same difference. (Scroll down and click on “Sperm Donor.” That’s so obvious it’s insulting. But someone would’ve said something and before you know it we’d all be arguing about Zizek.)


Greg 03.19.06 at 6:06 pm

The funniest (and most sad) thing about this is that these mothers (and some couples) are actually very aware of the fact that biology matters, so to speak. So, they want to go on vacations because they have offsprings with the same donor. But – whatever the explanation for this might be – they dont think that biology matters so much that the children ought to have fathers that actually are present in their lives (except on websites and their mothers fantasies). It would have been easier to accept this kind of behaviour if these mothers (and couples) didnt believe biology mattered that much.

I believe Professor Velleman is on to something, in more then one way, in his comment.


Tom T. 03.19.06 at 6:40 pm

The term “Aryan” is certainly a nasty little slur on the German bodybuilder by the article’s author. Presumably, the author wants to stir up a little frisson over a Jewish woman having her children fathered by a German, but he’s done nothing to deserve the Nazi/eugenics allusion.


MQ 03.19.06 at 7:33 pm

Man, that was a sad article. We are building a pretty lonely country here. Those women had become too narcissistic to share their lives with a man, but they needed to be about something more than themselves.


fifi 03.19.06 at 8:00 pm

“he may well already have 50 kids.”

I wonder what the record is for virgin with the most children.


Tim O'Keefe 03.19.06 at 9:09 pm

David Velleman writes… “the article is primarily about the shallowness and selfishness of the prospective mothers.”

I didn’t get that from the article at all. The author of the piece certainly said nothing explicitly of the sort, and I saw little in the tone or organization of the piece that said it via insinuation. If anything, the author seemed fairly sympathetic to the prospective mothers, although there are definitely details (like the shopping around for proper heights, skin tones, etc.) that are meant to raise eyebrows.


Greg 03.19.06 at 10:08 pm

And then with Tim O’Keefe’s comment we were back to the good old days when the job of hermenutics was to get us to the authors intentions.


lemuel pitkin 03.19.06 at 11:40 pm

Thanks novalis — the linked discussion is fascinating.

Greg I think has hit the key point here, but is it really so sad or disturbing, or just a sign of how norms and conceptions of family life are evolving? This is one of the only areas, after all, where people are free to organize their lives more or less as they please, and it’s interesting to see what they come up with…


lemuel pitkin 03.19.06 at 11:40 pm

(I mean Greg’s comment at 15, not the snark immediately above.)


InShock&Awe 03.19.06 at 11:59 pm

From the article: ” Mutts are always the friendly ones, the intelligent ones, the ones who don’t bark and have a good character. I want a mutt.”



rollo 03.20.06 at 3:06 am

Back home we call it line-breeding.
Got a good milker? Breed her off the progeny.
The hysterical cliché default is puddles of fur and biological ineptitude, but the fact is that good traits come to the fore, up to a point. And the rest go into the knacker’s wagon. Cat food.
The lab monkeys know this.
Incest is taboo – so should have been in vitro fertilization, and for the same reasons.
Yes it works – but not always. And it’s a subversion of an already adequate system, with no humanly adequate replacement.
When it goes south, it goes way south – re-direction of the human enterprise is damn near irreversible.
It’s as though Solomon’s famous baby was actually split down the middle and kept alive and given to each of the disputant mothers.
Happy now?
A short-term solution with long-term consequences.
What’s in error is the meddling.
Once begun it’s a monumental task to get back to where the real path was.
Dairy herds are easily collated – humans not so.
By humans.


Tom T. 03.20.06 at 8:28 am

Can someone with a biological background perhaps discuss the genetic risk associated with two half-siblings mating? Is it significantly worse than first cousins?


Greg 03.20.06 at 9:55 am

Regarding Lemuel Pitkin’s two posts. First thank you for responding!

Post 1) Well clearly the norms and conceptions of family life is changing, that the article shows. But the question remains if this is a desired change. My point was that instead of answering that question heads on I wanted to point out something that looks like a paradox. Namely that biology matters (that genes actually matter for how the child will be), but appreantly only so far (not so far that the children should have access to those 50% of their genes that comes from the father, and be able to understand and develop themselves in light of those 50%). What I found to be a good point in David Velleman’s comments was (not that I have any clue if this was his intention) that Belle Waring critizes the donor for wanting to spread his genes, but she does not critize the want-to-be mothers for wanting to spread their genes in this manner. The article shows women who believes that they ought to have children almost no matter what, as if they have some right to it (they make themselves moral objects, not agents). Then Waring goes on to supply the same logic by critizing the male donor, as if he is the agent and the morally responsible. Basically, I found Waring to just repeat a typical male-female stereotypes, that I find to rather obscure moral issues then make them clearer.

2) My apology for snaring, but my point is simple: You cannot decide what is interesting or, actually, what the article really says, by trying to get to authors intetions. Tim O’Keefe ends up bypssing whatever might be of interest – and what the article really conways – by focusing on the author’s intetions, or at least he risks doing that, depending on what one thinks of the article.


Anonymous 03.20.06 at 12:37 pm

“The article shows women who believes that they ought to have children almost no matter what, as if they have some right to it.”

Those damn women. Always trying to control their fertility. Time for us to take the position of South Dakota and make sure they use their uteruses as God intended.


Leonard 03.20.06 at 12:41 pm

Tom, the coefficient of relatedness of half-sibs is 0.25. By comparison, relatedness of full sibs is 0.5; first cousins (with full outbreeding) 0.125. The 0.25 of half-sibs is the same as your relatedness to an aunt or uncle.


saurabh 03.20.06 at 2:55 pm

You know, this is a pretty interesting from a mate selection point of view. Robert Trivers suggested that the sex that has the greatest parental investment will tend to become choosier in mate selection. In this case, there is literally zero male investment, meaning the burden falls entirely on females. If this becomes a more widespread strategy, female sexual selection should drive male evolution increasingly. Looking forward to your ornate horned crests, guys?


KCinDC 03.20.06 at 6:59 pm

Rollo (#24), I don’t see how in vitro fertilization relates to this case.


ogmb 03.21.06 at 6:59 pm

Seigmund and Seiglinde

To avoid German ei vs. ie mistakes, simply remember that each is pronounced (in English) like the second letter: ie = “e”, ei = “i”. Hence: Siegmund and Sieglinde.


DW 03.21.06 at 8:46 pm

Regarding Comment #29, it seems if this form of reproduction has a long term effect, it would be to reinforce patriarchy. Women provide the bulk of child care – that is the single biggest handicap women face getting ahead in public life. Under this system, selection is for men who excell in public life (smart, physically impressive, etc) but provide zero child care. It’s like a harem except without the man having to provide any economic input.

More seriously I find both the donors and the single mothers a little disturbing. Lesbians and couples with infertility problems I understand, but frankly if you’re unwilling or unable to find someone willing to raise a kid with you maybe the next generation doesn’t need your kids. Likewise, if you’re unwilling to put in the time as a father, maybe you shouldn’t be reproducing either. The funniest of course are the single moms who think they can still find a husband after having a sperm donor baby.


rollo 03.24.06 at 4:16 pm

#30 -It doesn’t.
Nor does Solomon’s solution to the disputing women.
Nor does the subject of incest except tangentially.
As a case. But this is not “a case”. This is a direction.
The immediate context of the post is “a case”. The greater context is where we’re going.
What’s at play here is sexual ethics, Darwinian reconfiguration, the assumption/denial of responsibility for the outcome.
In the murk of that these cases go undecided, grinding along against the inarticulate resistance of non-rational holdovers of dogma and received injunction – superstitious reluctance to surrender the shaping mechanisms of human presence to the blind claws of grasping self-interest.
None of it is alien, most of it is inhuman, but only by degrees. Like that frog in the water on the stove we just sit and watch the sides of the pot while nothing seems to change.
Incest is taboo, so is the consumption of pork in some cultural ethics, so is cannibalism in most. The rationality behind those taboos can be dissolved – reduced to either situational aptness or mindless obedience to tradition – and dispensed with.
Leaving us no morality but reason.
And reason’s no morality at all.

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